Deadly and incurable diseases were a part of everyday life in the eighteenth century. Fortunately, laundry procedures at the time helped save lives. Laundry was a major part of health and hygiene at home, in military camps and in hospitals. Laundresses, without understanding the science, adopted habits that prevented disease.
Doing laundry in the eighteenth century usually began with a pre-wash. This involved soaking the garments in aged human urine. Although it sounds disgusting, it actually helped. When aged, urine became an ammonia solution known as chamber lye, or lant. Lant had a high pH yet was a weak enough alkaline to be handled. It softened the fabric and helped with stain removal by breaking down common stains. Ammonia cleans oily, acidic and fatty dirts as well as proteins. One of the most common ways to neutralize a virus is to break down the protein and fats (lipids) that hold it together. Ammonia does this. Thus, in the pre-wash, lant neutralized viruses.
After the pre-wash, they took the linens down to the waterside and were rinsed out. A pot or kettle was set upon a fire outside in pleasant weather, and water was heated to just below a boil. A bit of soap went a long way; it was easy to over-soap clothing. A well-trained laundress never touched a bar of soap to wet clothing. Instead, she placed soap shavings or liquid soap in a bowl or dish of warm water and whipped it into suds. She then added this to the scalding water in the kettle. In England, Scotland and Ireland, where soap was not as commonplace, balls of fern ash or sod ash were sold. An ash ball increased the alkalinity of the water, causing a breakdown of the fatty material that holds a virus together.
As we have all heard on the news recently, hand washing with soap helps prevent the spread of viruses. Working as a surfactant, soap reduces the surface tension of water and causes grease and oils to emulsify. In layman’s terms, soap works because one side of a soap molecule loves water (hydrophilic) and the other side hates water (hydrophobic). The hydrophobic half of the soap molecule avoids water molecules. It latches onto the grime. The hydrophilic side of the soap molecule grabs the water. In our eighteenth-century model, groups of soap molecules surrounded the grime. These formed a barrier to keep grime from reattaching to the clothing. When the garment was beaten and rinsed, the grime got pushed out of the fabric along with the water. One substance being forced out of the fabric was grime that held a virus together. With the grime destroyed, the virus could not reproduce.
Occasionally, laundresses added lye or ash to the boiling soapy water. Potassium lye, a very strong, caustic base, was used prior to the discovery of bleach for similar purposes. As one of the two ingredients used to make soap, lye disabled viruses by eliminating nucleic acids and proteins, even when diluted.
Often, linens were bleached prior to rinsing. During this time period, bleaching referred to whitening, not to the chemical we know today. Prior to the discovery of bleach at the end of the eighteenth century, linens were laid out on large grass fields. Bleaching fields could be in park areas, designated fields for laundry or even cemeteries. To whiten, clothing would be wrung out, unfolded, shaken out and carefully placed on the grass. They sprinkled water and stain removers such as vinegar or lye onto the fabric as it lay in the grass. The bleaching in combination with UV rays from the sun killed several types of viruses and bacteria now known to cause disease. The chemicals caused the bleaching, while the oxygen released by the grass encouraged photodegradation.
After the bleaching, linens went to the stream for rinsing. Then the garments were again laid upon the fields to dry or hung from lines. Clothing was hung by self-hanging or using straight pins; clothespins did not exist. Sometimes this process, called rough drying, would be the final drying. More often, however, laundresses starched and flattened the clothing.
Starching softens linens. It adds crispness and body to clothing. It helps improve soil resistance and makes smoothing, pressing and ironing easier. 18th century starch yellows material if done when it’s too dry, so damp clothing sat overnight in a basket or was dampened the next day. Clothing was sprinkled with water, then rolled up to set for a while. Or, it was wetted again and wrung out well to moisten evenly.
Two types of starching existed in the eighteenth century, cold starching and clear starching. During cold starching, the starch was added to cold water then worked into the fabric. Clear starch was made using hot water and powdered starch, usually corn or wheat. Like a sauce, it was slowly blended in small quantities to avoid chunking. After being worked into a paste, it was thinned with water to the proper consistency. The water could be no hotter than scalding hot, as boiling water caused yellowing of the starch. Other starches, such as gum dragon or isinglass, were occasionally used.
Linens were ironed on a clean woolen or osnaburg cloth. The inside of the clothing would be ironed. Heat made linen softer and more pleasant to the touch. Starching did not help the wearer of the clothing avoid disease, but the ironing that accompanied the starching could have destroyed viruses. Finally, clothing was folded to be stored in a chest with herbs. Popular herbs included lavender, currently being studied for its antiviral properties.
People in the time period had a strong understanding of how to wash their linens. Their practices may seem antiquated or even counterintuitive, such as the use of urine in cleaning. However, by creating the same chemicals and chemical reactions we use today, eighteenth-century laundresses destroyed viruses–the invisible enemies–as they worked.
Brief Bibliography, see my other work on laundry for a more extensive bibliography
Davidson, Caroline. A Woman’s Work Is Never Done: A History of Housework in the British Isles 1650-1950. London: Chatto & Windus, 1986.
Ferrero, F., F. Testore, G. Malucelli, and C. Tonin. “Thermal Degradation of Linen Textiles: The Effects of Ageing and Cleaning.” Journal of the Textile Institute 89, no. 3 (1998): 562–69. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405009808658642.
Mendelson, Cheryl. Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens. Place of publication not identified: Scribner, 2010.
Perkins, John. Every Woman Her Own House-Keeper; or, The Ladies Library. Containing the Cheapest and Most Extensive System of Cookery Ever Offered to the Public. … Also, The Family Physician; or, A Complete Body of Domestic Medicine. London: James Ridgway, 1796.