18th Century Civilian Laundry Demonstration

Why Laundry?

The purpose of this article to assist living historians learn enough about laundry to develop their own demonstration. It will focus on the best practices being used in a perfect situation, as if one had all the knowledge and resources available at the time being put into proper practice. This does not reflect the realities of camp life, or the practiced ignorance of people at all levels of society. But knowing this should help people develop demonstrations that suit their setting.

What is Washed?

This article will focus on laundering white or unbleached fabrics made from plant fibers; linen, hemp and cotton. Linen can be flax linen or it can be made of hemp. Most of what was being washed were white or unbleached linens. Clothing that touched the skin; shifts, shirts and many work clothes were washed. Half of the wash or more was made up of house linens such as tablecloths, towels, napkins, cleaning cloths and sacks.

Sorting, Mending and Soaking

Clothing would be sorted by color, quality of material and the amount of filth that is on the clothing. Clothing is mended to prevent damage being done during the washing process. Ruffles can be removed from shirts. Cottons and fine linens are put to the side and washed separately. They need to be handled carefully to prevent yellowing or fraying. Articles are marked with laundry marks as needed.

Clothing would be gone through and pre-treated for stains and filth as necessary. Some of the clothing would be bucked or soaked. In London bucking with ash balls often replaced any other method of washing. Bucking was a common practice. Bucking is a laborious, long process. It is hard dangerous work because of the chemicals involved. A safe simulation of the activity can be done by not recycling the water or by omitting the ash. A linen cloth filled with ashes (known as a bucking cloth) is placed over a tub filled with linens. So as not to shock the linens the heat in the tub would slowly be increased by adding water through the cloth and recycling it back into the pot. The tub must have a hole in the bottom that can be plugged to allow the water to drain during the process. Once the water was steeping hot it would be left to cool overnight. In the morning the water would be drained into a pot, and reheated and then poured over the cloth. The hole would be loosely covered and allowed to slowly drip through the bottom and into a kettle under the tub. Once the kettle was full it would be heated and the water added again to the bucking tub. This cycle could be repeated for many hours. This is also one process used to make lye.

The longer the ash steeps the more caustic it gets. Lye water is what the liquid is referred to in the early stages. The PH of lye water is similar to bleach. True Lye is more caustic than bleach, it can burn the skin on contact and cause blindness. The longer that ash is steeped and the water cycled the more dangerous the water becomes, and the cleaner the clothing becomes. There is no set rule or time frame for the chemical to ripen into true lye. Please be careful it can cause serious burns. If you are going to try this please take proper precautions with modern safety equipment.

Some references to bucking are not bucking at all, but a pre-soak. Chamber lye, lye, soap or another mixture of substances could be used to pre-soak the fabric in a tub. Chamber lye, lant or aged urine are all the same thing. Urine was commonly used as a cleaner. Urine when aged decays into ammonia. It has a high PH, yet is a weak enough alkaline that it can be handled. It softens the fabric, and helps with stain removal, breaking down common stains. When this is done the fabric can be rinsed, and then resorted by filth.

Washing, Clapping, Bleaching and Bluing 

Three washes or more are often mentioned for linens. A wash is like a cycle in the modern day washing machine. It can be done many times dependent on the filth in the clothing. If the laundress was well trained a bar of soap would never directly touch the clothing being worked with. Soap shavings or liquid soap is placed in a bowl or dish whipped into suds then added to the kettle or tub.

The filthiest clothing is washed first. With a large enough kettle the clothing can be put directly in a kettle, or it can be placed in a tub. If in a tub, warm water is poured over the linens filling the tub. The water should be heated with the fabric in it so as not to shock or damage the fabric. The dirtiest whites, would be allowed to soak in this water. Then they would be carefully agitated and twist squeezed out, removing as much dirt and soap as possible.

A bat could be used to work the linens that were heavily soiled. A bat helps expel soap and filth similar to the spin cycle in a modern washing machine. Soap is a surfactant. Surfactants reduce the surface tension of water. Soap makes grease and oils emulsify. The simplest way to explain it to the general public is half of a soap molecule is hydrophilic, the other half is hydrophobic. The hydrophobic half of the water molecule likes grabbing the goop and forms a barrier around it to keep it from reattaching to the clothing, or other goop. The goop gets suspended on one end of the soap molecule, water on the other, and when beaten or rinsed the goop gets pushed out of the fabric along with the soap molecules. Beating our clothing removes the filth much faster than just rinsing it.

When beating the clothing each article of clothing is folded in half and then half again. Seams are hidden as much as possible helping to prevent damage to them. It also gives laundress some bulk to work with. Clapping could be done on a bench or rock . An osnaburg cloth is laid below the clothing to help prevent damage. The bat is then forcefully applied. If the fabric is more fragile, or a bat is unavailable all linens can be clapped by hand. This is done by kneading them as one would knead bread.

The clothing is then returned to the kettle or tub and the process would be repeated at least twice more with progressively hotter water. Beating them as needed. With the final scalding hot water, never quite boiling, but the steeping temperature for coffee or tea.

Bleaching is often done prior to rinsing. Bleaching in this time period does not refer to the chemical we know today, but to the process of whitening. Bleach was not even discovered until the end of the 18th century. Prior to that bleaching fields and a myriad of concoctions were used to whiten clothing. Clothing to be whitened would be rung out, unfolded, shaken out and carefully placed on the grass. Grass and sunlight bleach the cloth. The UV kill bacteria and cause some bleaching, while the process of photosynthesis in grass naturally bleaches the cloth on it as well. The combination of the two will whiten most clothing over time. Vinegar and other stain removers along with water would continually be sprinkled and the cloth kept moist.

Bluing is sometimes done with the soaping or starching. It can also be done independently of the wash. Bluing tricks the eye into believing that something is whiter than it appears. A very small amount of blue tint in fabric that yellowing will make the fabric appear whiter than it is . Bluing in the period is made from indigo, which is one of the most common crops in the Carolinas. If done with the wash, soap is added to a fresh bucket of water and whipped to suds. The indigo is placed in a cup and a little soapy water would be added to form a paste. Alkalinity is needed to dissolve indigo, soapy water is generally an alkaline. Once this was done the blue would be added slowly to the soapy water and whisked. The clothing needing the bluing would be added to the water. The tub could not be crowded. If the tub were crowded, the material could be streaked from the blue settling in the clothing. If bluing had been used it with soap the clothing would be washed in cool pump water in a tub. Be sure to rinse the tub thoroughly. If fabric is over-blued bleaching with vinegar and sunlight helps lessen the effect.

Most images and records show clothing being rinsed and washed at waters edge. It is the primary place that clothing was done in the period. In modern times we cannot use the waterways to wash our clothing. We use our tubs to rinse the clothing. This is a good opportunity to discuss that the laundry was generally done at the waterside. After rinsing clothing it can either be hung, bleached or it can be folded and kept damp in a basket overnight for starching the next day.

Starching, Mangling, Smoothing and Ironing

When the clothing is between damp and dry it is time to starch. Starching does not only add crispness and body to the fabric but it helps with soil resistance, and makes smoothing, pressing and ironing easier. Clothing could be left overnight in a basket damp, or could be dampened the next day. Starch yellows materials if the material is too dry. The clothing must be dampened by sprinkling it with water and rolling it to set for a while or the linen needs to be made damp again and wrung out well, so that the moisture is even. The clothing is then folded and the seams protected.

Most 18th century starching references are either cold starching or clear starching. Cold starching is just that. The starch is added to cold water, and then worked into the fabric. Clear starching is made using scalding hot water and powdered starch (usually corn or wheat). Like a sauce that uses starch it is slowly blended together in small quantities to avoid chunking. After being worked into a paste it is thinned with water to the proper consistency. Other starches such as gum dragon or isinglass may also be added to the paste starch. Bluing is sometimes added as well. The water must be no hotter than scalding hot. Boiling water will cause yellowing of the starch. After being combined it is cooled some before adding the fabric.

Starch is put into the clothes while they are still folded, the starched fabric is kneaded in a bowl until the starch sticks to one's hands. The materials are then wrung out, and wiped with a dry cloth. Hands have to be washed regularly throughout this process so as not to fray the finer materials.

Starching also can involve clapping, or pounding and pressing the fabric with a bat or mallet. This helps spread the starch throughout the weave. It must be done fast and hard. Clapping cannot be done by the fire or in damp weather both could discolor the fabric. Scents were sometimes added during starching.

After starching mangling can be done using a hand mangle or a large mangle. Mangling linens flattens the fiber and brings out a shining luster in the fabric. Cold mangling is just pressure being applied to damp linen. The compression causes the fibers to flatten and shine. This can also be achieved through smoothing. Smoothing stones are generally hand sized round flat glass shapes. Many have handles in the 18th century. Smoothing can be done cold or with heat. A stone can be gently heated, and used to press pleats into small areas. Period smoothing stones have been found in archaeological digs in the United States that date to the 18th century and earlier.

After smoothing linens can then be ironed on a clean woolen or osnaburg cloth that is doubled over. The wrong side of the clothing would be ironed. Heat makes linen softer and more pleasant to the touch, so this is often done after the mangling, but does not need to be done.

Items used in a Demonstration

With all things laundry I use a disclaimer when doing any demonstration about what is being used. I tell the public that I am there to share what could have been done in the time period based on the knowledge we have, not what necessarily was done in a specific place. I try to find those things out, but it is not always something we can to. We all have our own way of sharing things. What is most important to me is that I plant a seed of interest in our history and the every day lives of people in the 18th century. I bring things people can touch and interact with, and I tell them, we are not sure if this was here, but these are things that are found in the time period. I want people to use all of their senses to connect with the past and make connecting with history a memorable experience.

Kettles- For those starting out a tin camp kettle is fine. There are a lot of arguments on where to go from there. Before purchasing anything larger than a tin camp kettle become very familiar with all sides of those arguments. Hot Dip Tin has some nice reproduction camp kettles at a reasonable price. If you decide to buy another kettle, the tin can always be used for food, or hauling water.

Wash tubs can be purchased, both wood and iron banded can be documented. They must be kept wet always or they will shrink and fall apart. I keep mine in my house in a corner in the kitchen under my plants. They can have wooden handles or not. There are images of both. Many people have oak. I shy away from oak with all things laundry. If you are doing hot laundry in your oak tubs with various chemicals there is a chance the tannin will leach out. I bought cedar, although nowhere near as common they are practical for all the experimenting I do.

Bats- Still controversial on when they are used in the colonies. I use them in my civilian demonstrations. Beech, maple and ash are all documented. Sizes and shapes vary greatly. When I first started people would call something a German bat, another a Dutch, and a third a French bat. Since spending hours looking at images and finding sites with originals I am firmly of the belief that they are all found everywhere. I will say some feel better to some people, and some seem to work better in different situations. The one thing I do advise is get it made of a single piece of wood and try to get them round handled. Matt Stein makes mine, and has the measurements for the original that is in the Birmingham museum in the UK. I prefer a smaller beech bat he made me that is slightly shorter except when I mangle.

Soaps, starches and other chemicals can all be purchased at Amazon.com . Make sure they are all cosmetic or food grade so that they are safe for the public to handle. I have a couple friends who make me soap on occasion, but it is also available online. I usually have Gum Dragon (Gum tragacanth), Isinglass, Fullers Earth, Lye Soap, Indigo, and Wheat Starch on hand. They are all nice talking points.

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