Cat Tannenbaum Schirf
Military Laundry Concepts
Washing, bathing, changing into clean clothing and shaving gave people the feeling of being well groomed. People in the 18th century military worked to achieve a sense of cleanliness.
It was such a basic part of life that POWs experiencing incarceration on the dreaded prison ships, struggled to find a way to be clean, and attempted to rid themselves of facial hair in order to find some sense of normalcy.
Having clean clothing that touches one’s skin is part of being a clean person in the 18th Century. Although the concept of bathing in the period differs, people are bathing. They generally use a small tub with water and soap, or a watercourse. In a military context being clean, shaving oneself and wearing clean clothing was expected.
Soldiers were expected to have clean clothing. In some cases men did their own laundry. There are documented cases of them being given time to attend to their washing needs. Click the arrows to scroll through these examples.
Women following the army were expected to be of service to the military. One of the most common jobs they performed was that of a washer woman. They were strong people who showed fortitude. They were expected to cope with a lack of supplies, working for the soldiers, pregnancies, parenting and the constant anxieties that permeate war. No matter which army their loved ones fought for they faced adversity while they followed the army.
In the 18th century the average woman knew how to make soap. It was not a safe process. Soap is made by combining two ingredients. Lye, which during the time period is the chemical potassium hydroxide that was leeched from ashes, and an oil, beef fat turned into tallow being the most commonly used in the period. Producing both of the ingredients could be a dangerous undertaking.
Bar soap was commonly made by chandlers. The addition of salt to the recipe would harden the soap. Soap that was solid was easier to sell by the piece, and easier to transport than casks of liquid soap.
Some of the soap used for washing was made by women following the army. The majority of soap used by soldiers and the army while on the move had to be purchased or procured.
Many laundry practices are only uncovered because they are considered to be inappropriate. Examples of these are doing laundry in the barracks, dumping water on the parade grounds, scrubbing and rubbing linens to remove dirt, doing laundry upstream and polluting drinking water in doing so. However burning down a building probably tops them all. Hydrogen released while making soap in a brass or copper kettle IN barracks really can come back to bite you. Or maybe it was the tallow being melted and someone silly throwing some water on it…
In 1773 the dangers of soap making are said to have culminated in the destruction of Crown Point. It was believed that women making soap in the barracks at Crown Point started the fire that burned for 3 days, causing the magazine to explode and ultimately destroying the fort.
Tallow is made by melting the organ fat of an animal and straining it. This process is simple but simplicity does not mean that it is safe. Melting a pot of a flammable substance over a fire can have some very bad consequences. If a flame rises at all from the coals, the entire pot can light up, causing a very large fire. Keeping a lid on the kettle helps prevent this from occurring. Removing the lid over the fire is not advisable, I learned this the hard way.
A grease fire can be dealt with by smothering it. However I have seen even in modern times people react poorly and grab water for a grease fire. Trying to put out a grease fire with water, no matter the size, results in a very large fireball. When dealing with a grease fire, smother it or allow it to burn out. In modern times if you want to make tallow, I advise you to do it outside, or use a crock pot.
How Lye Was Made
The second ingredient is potassium hydroxide. To produce this substance, you only need hardwood ashes (cherry being the favorite option, oak, because of it’s tannens being the worst) and water. This can be produced using a lye stone, but when on campaign that is impractical, so it is probably made by boiling ash. The ash is simmered in the water for an extended period of time, until eventually the ash water becomes lye. Lye is a very caustic substance and is always dangerous to handle. It can cause severe chemical burns. In the 18th Century I have not seen lye being made in anything other than an iron kettle. If lye is made in a reactive metal pot, such as copper, brass or tin, some dangerous things occur. Hydrogen is released when a reactive metal and lye come in contact with one another. The other issue that comes into play is that ash based lye also known as potash, KOH or potassium hydroxide will corrode reactive metals rapidly. Although soap is made in a copper kettle, lye is made in iron pots. Iron is not reactive, When using an iron pot, the potassium hydroxide will remove any seasoning the pot may have. In a military setting any iron kettle could have been used. In civilian life a specific pot called a potash or lye kettle, made from thick iron, was created for the making of potash at home. Potash was a cottage industry in the period.
Although iron was used in lye making, a copper kettle seems to be the prefered pot for the actual process of soap making. Orders stating that soap and laundry being disallowed in the barracks may have been in part because of the hydrogen released in this process. Hydrogen is released any time lye and a reactive metal come in contact with one another. Any time soap is being made in a copper kettle hydrogen is released until saponification occurs. Saponification is a word used to describe when fat and lye stop being fat and lye and start to become soap. When using potassium based lye, which is what was available in the period, the resulting soap is a soft soap. It’s consistency is either liquid or like jelly combined with dish soap. in order to make hard soap salt needs to be added.
No matter the orders, military laundry, was done indoors and out.
A Guard is often sent with women doing the laundry. It is not only for the welfare of the women, but to prevent looting, and ill will between local people and those attached to the military.
Much of what we do know about military laundry is because of information discussing what not to do. In any time period people have to be reminded...
Don't Wash in the
A lot of people scrub, and at times there are mentions of it. But in general it is warned against. It breaks down the fibers and lessens the life of the clothing. This is where I use some of my modern knowledge mixed with women’s guides of the period. I have 5 kids, and I am surrounded by people who hunt. I mix what I have learned from their laundry with experimental archaeology.
If I get a pair of drill breeches that have blood on them and dirt embedded in the knees… The blood stain is my priority. A protein stain (like blood) is cooked and set by hot water. In order to remove the blood, now a days I would soak it in some ammonia water (Windex) and detergent and rinse it in running cold water. In the period I follow a similar method. I use lant (aged urine), soap and creek rinse method. I know that rubbing stains spreads them or makes them go in deeper, so if I rub, I do it from the opposite side. I will clap it some with it turned inside out. This should remove the blood. I repeat this until the blood stain is gone.
Once the blood is dealt with, It is time to tackle the dirt stain, or worked in filth. Both are removed by hot water (130 degrees or more) and soap. So pre-treat and then put it with the other clothing for a standard steeping hot wash with soap. Heat kills bugs, cleans set in dirt and oily stains.
Pay and Rations
What women were paid, and whether or not they received it seems to be based upon the unit they were in.
I have notices that people like broad sweeping answers. However, with women who followed the army there are very few of those.
Although some laundresses received rations and pay, it was not always the case. With those following the Continental Army we are not even sure if it was the usual case. It appears to have differed widely based on the Army, the unit, and the time period in question.
The Laundry Process in a Military Context
I will be using this image to illustrate the laundry process.
Laundry Basics in a Military Setting
Most laundry being done in a military context in the 18th Century is undyed linen. Linen comes from either the flax or hemp plant. This description of doing laundry covers these items. Other linen items made for storing things in, as well as clothing made from cottons and worsted wools being used in small clothes are laundered as well using similar techniques but different methods, however they are not discussed here.
Before being rinsed washing consists of soaking, steeping, soaping and clapping (smacking it). On top of this the linen can be bleached, blued, starched, and either ironed or rough dried (let out to dry without ironing). These processes can take several days depending on how they are done. In a military context any of these thing may occur, but generally only some do occur.
From the things I have read about laundry the following is what is possible to do in a military setting in a single day, with a group of laundresses, under optimal circumstances. When in a rush and on campaign, anything can change.
To the left and right are depictions of two large kettles. Because they are in a cluttered area they are hard to define without zooming in.
Heating water in a large kettle with soap and steeping the laundry is the easiest way to clean linen. If you have a large kettle, as those pictured here it is far easier to clean linens.
When all you have is a small camp kettle the realistic way to do laundry is to fill a tub with soapy water, massage the clothing, and rinse it well at a waterside.
You do not want to end up in a position where you are ruining the textile by scrubbing or rubbing it to get the stains out.
Kettles are a hotly debated subject among reenacting military laundresses. A kettle and tub can be stacked during transportation in a wheelbarrow
It is a common article taken from homes when army’s are out foraging. A very large copper or brass kettle weighs little more than a tub.
The image depicts two large kettles, along with a wheelbarrow. So how am I transporting everything? The wheelbarrow. Where did I get my kettle, I either brought it from home, or got it on a foraging expedition from someone in New Jersey.
When I have had access to a wheelbarrow carrying a wooden tub and a large kettle poses little to no difficulty. With the amount of work that hot water cuts down in the laundry process I would take a kettle large enough for a dozen shirts over a wooden tub on any excursion.
With a large kettle we go down to the local watercourse and steep clothing in scalding water for a couple hours in a large kettle, along with soap and possibly some white ash from firewood we previously burned to make the water more alkaline. After washing we can rinse it at the waterside.
Standard vs Laundry Kettles
Using other people’s camp kettles that need to be used for food is not a wonderful option for doing laundry. Were I to be stuck with little camp kettles it would require a ton of hot water rotational work. I have yet to see any reference of using camp kettles that are used for food for laundry. Laundry tends to leave a soap residue in a kettle that takes work to get rid of.
Wash Kettles on the Connecticut Document imply strongly that they are intended for laundry use. The word wash in the time period is used far more often than laundry is for washing clothing. There is little else one could ask to find to prove wash kettles in a military context exist. I am of the opinion that these kettles referenced are the preferred option.
The other brass kettle mentioned does not have any specific use. It very well could be used to do laundry, or make soap, which is needed for shaving as well as laundry. The iron pot would be a good help in making lye for the soap.
My other option is no kettle, and just using the local waterway along with soap and a lot of scrubbing, which would really upset Cuthbertson, who is of the mind that if you hand a woman soap laundry does not need to be scrubbed. Without warm water, even with a waterway and a bat, removing stains is very difficult without the help of warm water.
Soap would be harder to remove because it would be directly applied it to the clothing, which every woman’s guide says not to do. Between the two, my entire civilian laundress side begins to have an absolute meltdown, because I am English in thought with laundry. So for me the use of soap implies the use of at least warm if not hot water. Kettles of some sort are being used in my universe. Even if to just heat the water to put in a tub and then suds up the water there.
Clapping and Rinsing
The laundress has pulled her clothing from the kettle and is agitating things that still need a little more work. She probably clapped the linens at the waterside, either by hand or with a beetle. But since the beetle is not pictured I am going to say she did it by hand, and did it with a little soapy water in this very tub, rather than a bench, at the waterside. To clap them by hand you repeatedly fold them and press down as if you were kneading dough.
She also may be doing a final rinse, after having rinsed in the creek. Although initial sweat stains are prevented with an alkaline like soap or lye, the yellow sweat stains of time are removed by using a light acid. If she rinses the clothing in vinegar water it will help bleach out some of the yellow stains left from the laundry being rushed over the last few weeks because of the campaign. Now and then an old blood stain that was not removed early enough just takes a little time in the sun after a good rinse to get out the remainder of it.
In this image I am going to take a leap and say this week this unit is doing some starching. Starching prevents soil from staining clothing, also gives items a nice crisp look.
The dog is coming over and taking a good sniff of the substance being poured out, that makes me pretty sure it is not lye water or vinegar water. My dog avoids both of those. Starch water on the other hand, especially when it is clear starch she is interested in. Wheat starch is most commonly used in the period, although both potato starch and cornstarch are common in some areas. The higher end starches, such as starch made from isinglass, gum tragacanth and gum arabic can be added to the vegetable starch base once it is made into a starch.
Different articles of clothing receive a different amount of starch depending on what is prefered in the era. When starching shirts one puts starch on the cuff and collar, and then rolls it into the rest of the shirt, so that the collar and cuffs are stiffest.
After starching the clothing is hung to dry until only slightly damp. If it is completely dried on the line it has a different look to it. This type of drying is called rough dried.
Clothing do not have to be starched in order to hang them to dry. Although for bleaching drying on the green is prefered (drying on grass), the line is optimal in a heavily trafficked environment such as camp. You will also see clothing being dried over tents when there is nowhere for a line.
It is not uncommon for British civilians to roll their laundry and allow it to partially dry adding starch either before or after it is rolled, and then ironing it dry.
Ironing and storing is the final step in camp laundry. The woman on the right could have an iron in her hand from the position she is in. There are other camp images with women ironing. The woman with the basket could be storing clothing for the owners to receive when they return, or in order to bring it to the owner. Sad irons are the most common iron, they are just a large iron block with a handle.
The other type of iron is an iron that takes a heated metal slug it is called a box iron. It is much lighter to carry around, and much easier to keep heated than sad irons, but a sad iron is much more common.
Laundry marks identify the owner of the article of clothing that must be returned.
Images: Things to Keep in Mind
Many of the camp scenes we have are in London. This may be problematic because in London wash was done differently than other places. It was a coal based society, the fires let off the black soot coal is known for. Civilian laundry in London does what it can to conserve water use. Almost all water is transported to the laundress by water carriers and not done at waterside. There are references of laundry being done on the street or in the house, and people being comfortable with a very minimal wash compared to other regions in the period.
Wash and rinse are all done in sitting water. The soaps that are used are of a poor quality because a lack of good ash from hard wood trees, and importing of ash balls made of fern and peat for bleaching is not uncommon. These things complicate laundry being done in London, and in images depicting the regions surrounding London. However they differ very little from those of Johnston in Canada.
There are a lot of barriers one has to keep in mind when doing military laundry. I advise anyone doing it to understand how you be doing it in an 18th century civilian setting, vs what you are able to do in a camp based on what you have. Also be aware of what chemicals are dangerous, and what not to mix together, and how to deal with a grease fire.
There are a few issues in doing any laundry demonstration, and they are greatly magnified when doing a military laundry demonstration. First, you cannot use most of the chemicals and processes being used during the time period without either breaking EPA or OSHA laws and guidelines. An issue related to this, is trying to rinse clothing after washing it. Another issue for the historically minded is that there is little documentation on what is being done in the colonies in general when it comes to laundry. At least not enough to draw broad conclusions. So focusing on laundry in a military context makes a decent interpretation even more difficult to portray.
I advise people to instead use the idea and image of doing laundry as something to do while you discuss the wash or other things related to women and the army. Focus more on things that people can touch and interact with that are used while doing laundry than actually doing the true process. The public will get more out of it than just watching you do it improperly.
Feel free to write me and debate any of what is shared here. I enjoy discussions that help the community grow and see things from different points of view.
I want to give credit to the people who are responsible for helping and inspiring me. Many of the quotes that are here I found in research they had done on other subjects. I do very little military specific laundry research, I try to focus on the larger picture of how and why laundry is done as it is.
Read anything you find from these people, a lot of these quotes are from their work and research. They have been used in my work in a laundry context.
John U. Rees
Don N. Hagist
I am also always inspired by:
Anna Gruber Kiefer
And every other woman who is working on keeping history alive through research and interpretation.