“A good maid will manage her work in so methodical a manner, that she will never either feel or appear to be hurried.”
Taken from an 1829 book; Domestic Duties, Or, Instructions to Young Married Ladies, on the Management of Their Households by Mrs William Parkes.
Doing the laundry isn’t always the easiest thing to do nowadays, but it’s certainly a lot easier than it used to be thanks to the invention of the washing machine, the tumble drier, the electric iron, and electricity itself for that matter! On that note we’ve been counting our blessings while having a look at what a laundry maid in the 1800s had to do…
In place of a nice utility room, the laundry was typically completed in a cramped scullery or a dark tenement courtyard. The tools at hand would have been soap, a metal tub, a washboard (a board with wooden slats set into it at angles of around 45 degrees for rubbing the clothes against), a dolly (which looks a lot like a broom handle with a stool on the end of it – used for agitating the clothes), a mangle (essentially two long rolling pins which, when turned with a handle and clothes fed between them, helped to remove excess water) and a stove. The stove would heat the water but also heat the irons and air the linen as well.
The first thing that had to be done was to separate out any items that were ripped or which had lost buttons and get them mended…by hand. Next the clothes would be soaked in the soapy water, sometimes as it was heated over the fire; so keeping the clothes moving and the water topped up to avoid scorching on the linen was important. The clothes would be agitated using the dolly and when the time came to remove them, lifted out with a stick or tongs. This was a general wash, if the clothes were stained then scrubbing on a washboard with soap (expensive! (ash lye was used more commonly for the general wash and everyday items)), salt of lemon, citrate of potash, or bleaching liquid would be the answer to removing any ink blots or splashes of tea. The tub would then need to emptied and refilled (no small undertaking in its own right) so that the clothes could be rinsed in clean water, possibly more than once, and then they would go through the mangle to get rid of as much water as possible. After this they would be hung out to continue drying.
This might not sound too bad but not all the clothes could go in a tub at once, so the whole process would have to be repeated again and again to get all the clothes, bedding, and other household linens through. The process of washing and drying could take several days if it was a large household and if the weather was not warm; putting the linen away slightly damp was simply not an option in case it led to mildew.
Doing the laundry in our modern era might not be the most thrilling thing to do, but at least it’s nowhere near as time consuming as it used to be!