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. 

“Daily washing with salt water, together with their extreme emaciation, caused their skin to appear like dried parchment. Many of them remained unwashed for weeks; their hair long and matted, and filled with vermin; their beard never cut, excepting occasionally with a pair of shears.”

Ebenezer Fox (Continental)

“Before we Marched Capt. Wallace Capt. Powel myself, Lt. Mercer Lieut. Tibbs, Lieut. Baynham & Ensn. Peyton were denied our Posts in Battalion, for this reason, there was a Genl. Order for every Officer to attend Roll call at Retreat - I had not seen my chest for near a week. I was consequently very dirty with a long beard. I had embraced this opporty. of shaving & shifting and was about 1/2 shaved at the beat. I said the Men turn out and also said Mr. Black go to hear the Roll call, for this I was arrested .”

John Chilton Diary, 26 July 1777

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. 

“XIII Soldiers must be obliged to put on clean linen twice a week for certain viz Sunday and Wednesday on the first of which days they should be powdered and dressed in the best of whatever cloathing belongs to them with thread stockings besides these two days it must also be insisted on that they never parade for duty without clean shirts their hair well powdered gaiters highly polished and compleatly dressed in every particular”

Cuthbertson's System for the Complete Interior Management 

“23rd June 1781. It is strongly recommended to the Commanding Officers of Companies to pay more attention to them, and in particular that they keep their Accoutrements and Trowzers more clean, they being most shamefully dirty during the March. The Commanding Officers of Companies will be answerable this Order is complied with.”

Orderly Book of H.M. 43rd Regiment of Foot, May 23 - August 25, 1781 The British Museum, London - Translated by Gilbert V. Riddle

“Six women, wifes of men belonging to the detach-ment may be sent there at the same time the necessaries go, who will be employed in washing for the men, that they may be kept clean”

General Orders, America, January 27, 1775
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.

"accompanyed her husband... in the service... and continued in said service in the capacity of washerwoman for the officers untill the close of the war where her husband was duly discharged. That she had while in said service several children…"

Deposition of Maria Cronkite Wife of Patrick Cronkite, Fifer, 1st New York Regiment 1777 - 1783 Standard Carried by the 1st New York Regiment

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.

“Deponent took her stand just back of the American tents, say about a mile from the town, and busied herself washing, mending, and cooking for the soldiers, in which she was assisted by the other females; some men washed their own clothing. She heard the roar of the artillery for a number of days, and the last night the Americans threw up entrenchments, it was a misty, foggy night, rather wet but not rainy. Every soldier threw up for himself, as she understood, and she afterwards saw and went into the entrenchments. Deponent's said husband was there throwing up entrenchments, and deponent cooked and carried in beef, and bread, and coffee (in a gallon pot) to the soldiers in the entrenchments. On one occasion when deponent was thus employed carrying in provisions, she met General Washington, who asked her if she ‘was not afraid of the cannonballs?’ She relied, 'No, the bullets would not cheat the gallows' that ‘It would not do for the men to fight and starve too.”

Deposition of Sarah Mathews Osborn of Albany, New York For the Pension of Her Husband, Aaron Osborn National Archives. Sarah Osborn Benjamin

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.

“The Commissary will furnish Fatt & Casks to Each Regt for the purpose of making Soap The Q Master will immediately Cause the women belonging to Each Company & Batt n to attend to this necessary Business The Troops to manuver regularly”

Robert Gamble

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. 

“ In April 1773, a fire destroyed the barracks of the British fort at Crown Point, New York. A court of inquiry was held to determine the cause, and part of the testimony focused on the activities of Jane Ross, wife of a soldier in the 26th Regiment of Foot. An officer of the 26th testified that "it was the common talk" that the fire was caused by a soldier's wife boiling soap, a chimney fire having started in the fireplace that Mrs. Ross had used to make soap the day before. Mrs. Ross testified that it was common practice to make soap in the barracks rooms, that she was not aware of any orders prohibiting this practice, and that the chimney had last been swept some five weeks prior to the fire.”

The Women of the British Army in America by Don N. Hagist

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.

“The Commanding Officer having observed some women washing in the Bar-racks, which must be prejudicial both to the Rooms & the mens health therefore it is his positive order that the women find some other place to do that Dirty work in, the Commanding Officer being Determined to Drum out of the Corps such as are Guilty of so shameful a practice.”

Orderly Book Marine Garrison at Halifax by the Circle of John Dowman c. 1770s

"he went to the Barrack in Dock Street, to which the Prisoner belongs; in going into one of the lower Rooms, he there found the Prisoner Washing his Shirt..."

trial held in New York in 1779 Don N. Hagist, 22nd Regiment of Foot, appeared originally in the Brigade Dispatch (XXIV, No. 3, Summer 1993)

25 July 1781: "This day this Bridge fell in about 2 o'clock; it was 30 feet high, of a very singular construction. A number of soldiers were on or about it, as well as women under it washing, yet no one was hurt."

"Diary of the Pennsylvania Line. May 26, 1781 April 25, 1782", Pennsylvania in the War of the Revolution, page 677. The foregoing "Diary" includes the journals of both Captain Joseph McClellan and Lieutenant William Feltman. Captain McClellan left the army on 13 June 1781. [i.e., Good's Bridge, Appomattox River, Amelia County, Virginia]

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.

"The Commanding Officers of Corps to be answerable that proper People be sent on Shore at Dartmouth to superintend the Women & others that may be left there to wash or for any other Purpose who are to be accountable for all Depredations that may be committed on the Houses or Estates of the Inhabitants.”

Labradore, Saturday 13th Aprill 1776 General Sir William Howe's Orderly Book: At Charlestown, Boston and Halifax

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

“Commanding Officers of Corps are not to suffer their Women, on any account, to Wash in the Streams near the Watering Places”

Head Quarters Banker's House Staten Island 2d July 1777 Collections of the New York Historical Society

"Head Quarters, Fredericksburgh, October 24th, '78. Information has been Given to the Comadent that the wemon of the Breaged still Continues the vile practise of washing thire Dirty Clothing in the run upon which the soldiers thirst Depend upon for there water they Drink. It behoves both officers & Men to put a stop to so vile a practise. He orders that when any women is found washing in it, unless below the Breaged, she be Immedetly put in to the Bregad guard.”

Pennsylvania Archives, John B. Linn and William H. Egle, (ed.) 2nd Series, Vol. XI [Harrisburg, 1880] The Orderly Book of the First Pennsylvania Regiment. Col. James Chambers. July 26, 1778 December 6, 1778. page 375 376.

Don’t Destroy the Fabric

“VII As it often happens that the women who wash for Soldiers are not punctually paid by which means are unable to provide that quantity of soap the must require and thereby sooner rub it out Pay Serjeants should be directed to stop for washing from those who are so idle to neglect a punctual and every week clear off the Women who by this method can have no excuse for doing justice to the linen.”

Cuthbertson's System for the Complete Interior Management

"She got up at Gun firing, & felt a pair of Breeches by her Washing Tub".

W. O. 71/84 p. 317-332, /87 p. 1-9, /88 p. 144-166, /91 p. 55-62). Sarah Serjeant of the 1st Regiment of Guards, - Don N. Hagist

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.

"she thinks there was twelve in the Mess to which she was attached – that she cooked & Washed for the Mess, while there, she says that Capt John Ross said to her she ought to have had two Dollars per Week for what she did – Capt Ross, said to me, that he would try to get some out of their Wages (to wit) the Soldiers and pay Me – but I never received one penny."

Margaret Johnson

“Summer of 1779 indicates that the ‘washerwomen’ of each company were allowed one wood ration”

Don N. Hagist Order books, W. O. 34/242-244, Amherst Papers, PRO. Entry dated London, June 5, 1779.

“Straw is to be allowed at the rate of one truss to each paliass for two men, and to be changed every thirty-two days. Two trusses per company are to be allowed for Batmen, or servants not soldiers; and three trusses per company or troop, for the three washerwomen, to be changed every fifteen days, they not having paliasses”

John Williamson, “A Treatise on Military Finance”, London, 1782

“October 7, 1778… the Women to find Soap for Washing a Shirt Six pence, one pair of stockings two pence one pair of Breeches five pence a Hunting Shirt five pence a linen vest and stock five pence, in all two Shilling; - the men to find soap; for Washing one Shirt four pence, one pair of stockings one penny, one pair of breeches or Overhalls, three pence, Hunting Shirt four pence vest and stock three pence, in all One Shilling and three pence; a Soldiers pay per Week is Eleven Shill, and Eight pence; a soldiers pay for washing per week (providing he has the above articles washed) two per week, four Shillings - NB. if the women find Soap by the Above calculation, supposing a woman to wash for ten men Soldiers brings her 20 shillings per week and leaves her sufficient time to Earn twice as much more, for the officers washing; This Regulation to Respect the Non Commissioned officers and Soldiers only The Commissioned officers to agree for their washing any way they chuse” s

Orderly Book, 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment Regimental Order

"If pay is with-held from us, and Provisions from our Wives and Children we must all starve together; or commit Acts which may involve us in Ruin" Our Wives add "could earn their Rations, but the Soldier - nay the Officer- for whom they Wash has naught to pay them" In a word I was obliged to give Provisions to the extra Women in these Regiments or loose by Desertion - perhaps to the Enemy- some of the oldest and best Soldiers in the Service"

Newburgh NY, January 1783 The Papers of Robert Morris, 1781-1784: November 1, 1782 - May 4, 1783

“The loyalist women receiving rations are to wash for the non-commissioned officers and men of the volunteers at four coppers a shirt and in proportion for other things.”

Haldimand to Lieutenant French, July 14, 1780. HP 21,821.

“Light Infantry Kakeyatte 13th Oct r 1779 Frequent complaints are made to me that notwithstanding there are three Women who draw Rations in my Company the Men Receive no benefit by Washing from them for the future to prevent complaints of this sort and the more equitable distribution of the business amongst them Sergeant Grymes will immediately divide the Company into three Squads as may be most agreeable to them and give each woman a list of those she is obliged to wash for who will deliver her the soap they draw and pay her the stimulated sic price except when the soap is not sufficient & she is obliged to purchase then they must make a reasonable allowance but on no pretence whatever is she on an average to exceed two Dollars Dozen the Woman's Just Accounts shall be punctually paid at the End of every month by the men except she chuses to wait Longer If any of the Women of my Company are properly convicted of refusing to comply with this reasonable Order for the first fault her whole Rations shall be stopt & and for the second she shall be dismissed with disgrace as a useless charge & Expence to the Continent”

Collections of the Virginia Historical Society, Volume 11

The Comding officers of Regts will call for a return of all y Soldiers in their Corps that have any bounty money now Due them with the names of y officers such soldier were inlisted by Ye officers of y PL have observed that ye tradesmen & wash women belonging to y army makes a practice to Charge y officers & soldiers very extravagent prices for which work they do in Camp The Com ding officers of Regts unanimously agrees that y following regulations & stipulated price be observed in future & that no more be given to any soldier excused from doing Duty and wash women who draw rations than what have been aforementioned viz Taylors for making a full Regtt Dress coat 20 shillings waist coat & Breeches 10 shillings each for summer wash Cloths 7 & for attention & mending &c all kinds of Cloaths in the same proportion Shoe makers for making a pair of shoes Dol soling & heeling 2 shillings when Leather and every material is found them and when they find ye stuff or any part thereof are to Charge no more than 1st Cost of such articles Wash women when sope is found them for officers washing Dol pr Day Any wash woman who will presume to charge more then y price aforementioned will immediately be ordered out of Camp & not be suffered to return The Adj of each Regt will take a copy of the above regulations and read them to their Regts

RICH HUMPTON Col PB Pennsylvania Archives: Pennsylvania in the War of Revolution, battalions and line, 1775-1783, vol. 2

“Should any woman refuse to wash for soldiers at the above rate he must make complaint to the officer comdg the co to which he belongs, who on finding it proceeds from laziness or any other improper cause he is immed to dismiss her from the Regt viz if she attempts to remain afterwards he must have her drummd out as the col is determined that no woman shall draw rations from the Continent in his regt unless they make use of their endeavors to keep their men clean."

Captain Patterson president Orderly Book, 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment, October 7, 1778 General Orders

"the following Prices be paid for Washing; to the Women, who draw provisions, with their respective Companies; For a Shirt two Shillings; Woolen Breeches, Vest and Overalls, two Shillings, each; Linen Vest, and Breeches, one Shilling, each; Linen Overalls, one Shilling and Six Pence each; Stock, Stockings and Handkerchief, Six Pence each; the Women who wash for the Companies, will observes these regulations."

“Sketch of West Point 1783” (Library of Congress)

"those who will presume to Charge more than the price afore mentioned [one half-dollar per dozen articles] will immediately be ordered out of the Camp & not to be suffered to return." ...

1770, Sergeant John O'Neill ​

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.

“Resolved by this Assembly , That the committee appointed to procure tin kettles and iron hollow-ware for the use of the battalions of foot ordered to be raised in this Colony do like-wise purchase two suitable brass wash-kettles for each of the companies in the battalions aforesaid, and deliver the same to the Commissary-General or his deputy, for the use of said Battalions.”

COLONY OF CONNECTICUT, From May, 1775, to June, 1776

"3d Regiment (42 officers, 187 rank and file present, fit for duty; 144 rank & file sick, on command, and on furlough) 73 camp kettles 18 wooden bowls 1 iron pot 1 brass kettle"

From John U. Rees Which supports above Return of Quarter–Master General Stores on hand in the first Connecticut Brigade Commanded by J Huntington B.G.,” “Camp Highlands,” 25 May 1781. ​

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.

“all their linen articles should have the name of the owner with the number of the Regiment and Company he belongs to marked with a mixture of vermilion and nut oil which when perfectly dried can never be washed out under the flit of the bosom of the shirt will be found the most convenient place “

Cuthbertson's System for the Complete Interior Management

“Jane Garland (of the Marines) being sworn, Deposeth, that she missed a shirt out of the Tent belonging to John Morris, & that the shirt is marked with Red Ink I. M. The Shirt Produced above is sworn by the Deponent to be the shirt she lost. John Morris (of the Marines) being sworn deposeth that a few days before the Engagement at Charlestown he gave a shirt to be washed by Jane Garland & upon demanding it, he was told, that it was lost. That one day last Week the serjeant sent for him, & produced his Shirt to him. The Shirt produced in Court being compared to the one the Deponent is wearing, appears to be marked in the same Manner, and the Deponent says that it is his properly.”

More interesting testimony of army wives, this from the trial of John Withrington, Marine, Boston, 18 Dec 1775, for robbery [WO 71/82 p229-232] Posted by Don Hagist November 11, 2016

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.


Some Credits...

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
Jennifer Heim
Steve Rayner
Kirsten Hammerstrom

I am also always inspired by:
Ruth Hodges
Jana Violante

Margaret Staudter
Anna Gruber Kiefer
Carrie Fellows
Laura Myers
Adam Hodges

Eliza West
Sharon Burnston

And every other woman who is working on keeping history alive through research and interpretation.