As with many topics that have to do with the working class, laundry methods in the colonies are hard to specifically document. There are occasional mentions, but not a large enough pool to draw solid conclusions. When researching laundry one has to keep in mind conditions of our mother country, and the capital, London. Unlike many European cities, the London working class had issues with ease of access to water. Water had to be hauled, and the labor was often paid for. The city had already become a coal society so the laundry process required the import of decent pot ash or soap. With hardwood forests and much easier access to fresh water, the colonies in many ways had more in common with the rural areas of the United Kingdom and Continental Europe.

Much of our working population came from the poorest of the poor in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and are likely to have brought their washing customs. There are many English women’s guides of the time that give us further insight into the cleaning processes. Laundry, when given the proper conditions anywhere in the world, seems to be done similarly, because linen can be consistently cleaned using those methods.

1. Soak

2. Steep

3. Soap

4. Smack

“The washing of linen is performed in a singular manner: the cloths are first laid soaking in water, 2 or 3 Days: then a cloth is put upon the tub and ashes laid upon that; upon these ashes boiling water is poured. Afterwards they are rubbed with soap, and at last beat with hand beatles (that is flat pieces of wood with short handles), upon little forms being often rinced in clean waters during this operation. This last ceremony of beating was frequently exhibited on the road.”

Soaking: Bucking

Bucking clothing can refer to any process that involves soaking clothing to get them clean. A chemical or combinations of chemicals are used in order to raise the alkalinity of the wash water. The bucking water is generally either a lye based wash or an ammonia based wash. Ingredients such as bran, stale urine, steeped dung water (especially bird dung) and straw were used in bucking. When made properly, the bucking will loosen dirt, dissolve grease and bleach linen. 

“Look, here is a basket: if he be of any reasonable stature, he may creep in here; and throw foul linen upon him, as if it were going to bucking: or—it is whiting-time —send him by your two men to Datchet-mead. “

The Merry Wives of Windsor 1597

“Wet the Linen with warm Water and rub it over with Soap then rub the Cloaths between your Hands very hard and that Will loosen the Dirt After that let them lie in hot Water till next Morning then wash as usual and there will be no Occasion for more Soap till the second Lather”

Mdm Johnson Every Young Woman's Companion

“TO whiten Cloth the best Way. Take your Cloth and Buck it well, then spread it upon the Grass and sprinkle it with Alum water suffering it to continue abroad for three or four Days; then buck it again with Soap and Fuller's Earth, and use it as before and so it will be both thick and white.”

1748 Housekeepers Pocketbook

“A bucking tub, a keeler 2 payles”

1633 Plymouth

"Before that you suffer it to be washed, lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out."

Hannah Wooley

Chamber or small lye is not lye, it is urine. It may be stagnated or fresh, dependent on what the laundress had been taught. Other names for this are lant, leeting, wash and aged urine. Every Woman’s Guide has recipes that use this substance. Although the name often changes, the contents do not. 

Urine trade is a booming industry. The collier boats that bring coal into London leave the city stocked with lant. The chamber lye would then be taken to Yorkshire. Whitby was the center of the trade. The urine would be used for alum, for leather dressing and in many other industries. Urine was viewed differently than we see it now. It was not just a waste product; it had many home uses, one of which was laundry.  When urine is aged it decays into ammonia. Ammonia prevents acidic contaminants from staining the laundry and bleaches linens. 

“The first day wash ye tabling & napkins in small Lye, yn at night lay them in a lucke warm buck till morning, let it run leasurely out, & fling it away, the next day Bucke it, & wash ym out with Lye, yn wash ym in ye suds after yr fine Linnen, wash your Kitchin Linnen, & Servants Table cloths, & in Lye lay ym at the botom of your course sheets, yn lay your course sheets in, & fine on ye Top dry, then, the first night lay on a luke warm bucke, let it run leasurly out all night, fling ye Lye away, & Bucke ym, & wash ym out in Lye, yn with suds as above, all servants shirts, shifts, & Aporns should be bucked with the sheets, or Table Linnen, what Linnen are Stained, rub ye places with salt & soap, & wash it out in small lye, before you put ym in ye Bucking Tub, ye must lye a night in soake in lye before you wash ym out”

1707 Katherine Wyndham’s “Booke of Cookery & Housekeeping” ​Wooley

Steeping, Boiling and Brewing

“That she shall go round the House every Day on the Womans side before Ten o’Clock but on Tuesday before Nine to see that the Patients are regularly Shifted and Sheeted as they ought to be

That she shall receive the Linen and other necessaries brought in with the Patients by their Friends and shall deliver them to the Gallery Maid under whose care the Patient is put who shall keep an Account in Writing that they may be delivered up when the Patient is Discharged, or if Torn that the Pieces may be returned to shew that they have not been purloined

That she shall take an Account of the Linen before it goes to the Wash, and see that what ought to be is returned According to the Account taken That she shall go down into the Laundry on Wednesday to Observe the Washer Women, and to see Whether the Linen belonging to the Patients be Boiled a sit ought to be and Washed in proper Suds

That she shall go into the Store Room in the Winter time by Eight o’Clock to see that the fire is lighted and shall then Order the Patients proper for that place to be Carried there as soon as they Conveniently can, and shall Complain to the Steward if she finds the Gallery Maids or the Basket men negligent therein

Bridewell Royal Hospital

Description of a Matron's duties

Heating water in a large kettle with soap and steeping the laundry is the easiest way to clean linen. It causes the long fibers of the linen to release the soils that are trapped within. When the word boil is used it is not generally a true boil, but extremely hot water being kept on the fire. Usually the linen is heated up to just below boiling, and kept at that temperature for an hour to several hours.  This process generally includes the next process, soaping. Lye or soap are often added to the boil.

When a large kettle is unavailable water can be heated over a fire with added to a tub where the process of cleaning can continue. This is not as optimal a process, and when doing large amounts of laundry inefficient.

 It is easy to do this when small amounts of wash when are being done or when soap and a tub are available but a large kettle is not. In the image above you see both a large kettle and tubs. This is probably an image of steeping, soaping and smacking (the massage of linens being done in the tubs.)

Soap & Geography

Lye Water & Soap in Urban England

Soap availability and quality was often questionable in London and other areas dependent on coal. Ash was often used to up the PH of water, something like bleach is today.  Lye in the 18th century refers to Potassium Hydroxide. It was most commonly made by soaking or steeping hardwood ash in water. It could also be made with certain organic waste products including poultry manure.  Lye water was a less potent version of lye.

Ash balls were commonly used to make lye water. It helped reserve soap for specific needs.  Ash ball production was a cottage industry. They were imported from rural areas.  In Staffordshire and Wales fern ash was used to form ash balls. In Scotland and Ireland thistle, weeds and fern ash were used. The ash was wet with water, then balled or made to form  bricks with a hole in the middle, allowing them to be hung with string.

“Some Persons at a great Wash put Ode or Pearl Ashes tied in a Cloth and let it lie in the water they are to use for Washing and when they boil Cloths hang the Bag with the Ashes in the Copper they do with common Water in which they also sometimes boil Wood Ashes.“
1753 Madam Johnson's Present: Or, Every Young Woman's Companion
“At London, and in all other Parts of the Country where they do not burn Wood, they do not make Lye. All their Linnen, coarse and fine, is wash'd with Soap. When you are in a Place where the Linnen can be rinc'd in any large Water, the Stink of the black Soap is almost all clear'd away.”
1698 London
“The ashes of the Nettle and Thistle are the best among herbs for bleaching linen and in the country they make up the ashes of Nettles and other herbs into balls with stale urine and burn these balls till from an ash grey colour they become white and for this purpose these balls undergo two burnings and then are used as Soap for cleansing and whitening Linen cloth.“
1772 Dublin
"I went with the prisoner to deliver a tun of soap to one Mr. Williams; as we were coming back he asked me if I knew of any washer-woman; I asked why; because said he here is a couple of cakes of soap I have to dispose of; I said I knew of no washer-woman; he upon that hid the soap in a dunghill."
1774 London

Soap in the Colonies

One of the more appalling things seen in the colonies is the purchase of imported poor quality soaps. The purchased soap is most likely made from the ash of weeds rather than good hardwood, which is plentiful in Virginia..

“As soap and candle are commonly a joint manufacture, I will now mention that article, which they have here very good, as they have the finest ashes in the world. But when you have occasionally to buy it, however, you meet only with Irish soap, and tho' some house-wives are so notable as to make it for themselves, which they do at no expence, yet most of them buy it at the store at a monstrous price.”
1774-1776 North Carolina
“They wash here the whitest that ever I seed for they first Boyle all the Cloaths with soap, and then wash them, and I may put on clean linen every day if I please.”
1773-1776 American Colonies
"One pound of beef, or 3/4 of a pound of pork or one pound of fish, per day. One pound of bread or flour per day. Three pints of peas or beans per week, or vegetables equivalent, at one dollar per bushel for peas or beans. One pint of milk per man per day. One half-pint of rice, or one pint of Indian meal per man per week. One quart of spruce beer, or cider, per man per day, or nine gallons of mollasses per company of one hundred men per week. Three pounds of candles to one hundred men per week, for guards. Twenty pounds of soft, or eight pounds of hard, soap for one hundred men per week."
1776 American Colonies

Receipt for Soapmaking

“SOAP is distinguished into such as are hard, which those of India Venice Marseilles Costile Naples and London are, and soft soap such as are the common soap so called and black soap. Now the Indian sort is made of a Lixivium or Lye of Pot ashes so strong an Egg may swim thereon of the Soap boilers take 20 pounds and 2 of Goat or Sheep's Fat or Tallow all together for an hour or so long it come to a due Consistency then the strain it while hot thro a Linen Clot into a broad earthen or pewter Vessel and being cold cut it out in form Bricks &c. For the white hard soap Naples they boil to a Consistency pounds of the same Lixivium and of Deer's Suet then form it into Bricks and dry them the other hard soap made in the same manner only differ in the proportion of the and time of boiling As for the common soap aforesaid tis made thus take Oak or Beech ashes or rather Pot ashes 3 parts Quick one moisten the Pot ashes a little mix the Quick lime with them upon Layer or rather cover the over with them which leave long in a large vat till the Lime falls and they mix together to make a noise Afterwards put more Water that the Mass may become moister, then with a quantity of boiling Water more the fiery Lixivious Lye commonly by the Workmen the Magistral of Capital so which is so strong that an Egg wils swim therein This is to be drawn off and of the same Mixture make another Lye not quite so strong with boiling Water with that mix our Oil Lard Fat or Tallow which j over a soft Fire till they grow white that done add of the Capital Lye in triple proportion to the Oil Lard Fat or Tallow and continue boiling till they are coagulated and all compačted into one Body Then make trial of it by the Tongue if the Taste be sweet you must add more of the Capital Lye if biting it is to be boiled till it has swallowed up the Oil but if more than ordinary unpent more Oil should be put in leisurely and with discretion lastly boil it till it to roap and run clear or transparent from the Ladle and continue the boiling for the space of 3 hours As for that known by the name perfumed Soap take white Venetian Soap 1 pound impalpable Powder Orrice root 4 ounces 3 ounces of white Starch in powder Magistery or the Marchasite and Spermaceti of each I ounce Salt of Tartar an ounce and an half let these be all mixed together by beating them well in a Stone Mortar with a wooden Pestle adding Rose water impregnated with Musk a sufficient quantity and at the end Oil of Rhodium Oil of sweet Marjoram each an ounce and an half Musk and Civet of each 2 scruples mingle and make up the whole into Balls Lastly for black Soap tis made with strong Lye as aforesaid and Whale Fish Oil commonly called Train Oil and tis brought to a due consistency by convenient boiling.”

How Soaps Work

Soap is a surfactant. Surfactants reduce the surface tension of water, causing grease and oils to emulsify.

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 molecule, water on the other, and when beaten, clapped, wrung or rinsed the surrounded filth gets pushed out along with the soap molecules.

Beating, Kneading and Clapping

Anything that uses physical exertion to remove the soil from the laundry. This is most effective when used along with the other methods of washing. It is the oldest form of washing and is still is done in some areas of the world.

Batlers in England

“The washing of linen is performed in a singular manner: the cloths are first laid soaking in water, 2 or 3 Days: then a cloth is put upon the tub and ashes laid upon that; upon these ashes boiling water is poured. Afterwards they are rubbed with soap, and at last beat with hand beatles (that is flat pieces of wood with short handles), upon little forms being often rinced in clean waters during this operation. This last ceremony of beating was frequently exhibited on the road.”

Herefordshire, England 1775

I remember the kissing of her batler ~

As You Like It - Shakespeare

Description of Clapping

"The great∣est Observables were a little silent Bell in Duodecimo, which being utterly Disleepled, hung between the collops of an old wa or rather a Mortar invers'd, whic had lost its Pestle, so that it wi not vocal by stroke of intern Clapper, but by knocks and blow of external Hammer; within th found of this Bell stood a lolliwashing-Block; being a woodd kind of Anvil, where the She-Vulcans were hammering out wit Battle-Door the Filth of Linne whose unctuous Distillations we the Nile that water'd the litt Egypt of the adjacent garden."

1643-1705 Wales

“Here we witnessed Welsh washing by the side of the stream. A kettle placed on two stones was kept boiling by a fire of sticks, and one woman was attending to this department. Another was stamping with her naked feet in a large tub, filled with clothes; and a third was beating the linen on a wooden horse with a beetle, and occasionally rinsing it in the running stream. As we approached, they were singing very merrily, but they ceased on seeing us. … The only dress they wore, was a striped flannel petticoat, a shift, and a black beaver hat. This mode of washing in the rivers, which is prevalent in Wales, must tend very much to domestic comfort for nothing is more unpleasant in families of moderate fortune than the frequent return of washing week when the mistress thinks herself to be privileged to be out of humour, if the weather is not favourable, and master must put up with anything he can find, because ‘washing is about.’”

Trecastle, Wales 1805

“Women are oftener without shoes than men and by washing their cloathes no where but in rivers and streams the cold especially as they roast their legs in their cabbins till they are fire spotted must swell them to a wonderful size and horrid black and blue colour always met with both in young and old They stand in rivers and beat the linen against the great stones found there with a beetle.”

1776-1779 Ireland

“Batyldoure or washing betylle Feretorium. Throughout our Southern States the negresses wash clothes by pounding them while wet upon a bench with a short flattened club Washing in this manner is called battling and the club itself is a battle.”

1849 United States

"Have I lived thus long to be knocked o' th' head With half a washing beetle? Pray be wise, Sir."

England 1647

Tramping Laundry

Tramping Laundry is best known as a Scottish Custom, There is evidence of tramping Laundry in Wales, Italy and the Netherlands as well.

Laundry Boards

Boards may be laid upon the kettle and tubs in order to clap and massage the laundry. The linen is kneaded as if it were bread, working the chemicals through the cloth, and cleansing them of filth. ​

Stools, Boulders & Benches

A bench, board or stool is convenient to use for beating, clapping or massaging the clothing upon. It may seem counterintuitive to beat your things on a rock after washing them but it forces the filth soaked soap and water out of the linen. Even when not using soap it is an effective way to clean. Pounding and soaking clothing by the stream is the oldest form of washing clothing and it is still done by our washing machines during the spin cycle.

Wash in Review

1. Soak

“the cloths are first laid soaking in water, 2 or 3 Days”

2. Steep

“a cloth is put upon the tub and ashes laid upon that; upon these ashes boiling water is poured”

3. Soap

“afterwards they are rubbed with soap”

4. Smack

”at last beat with hand beatles (that is flat pieces of wood with short handles)”

Bibliography, Credits & Notes

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Colton, George H. Prospectus of The American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art and Science.: It Having Been Determined to Establish a Political and Literary Monthly Review, to Be Conducted in the City of New-York by George H. Colton, Esq., and Devoted to the Permanent Maintenance of Whig Principles and Improvement of American Literature .. Vol. 3-9. New York: Published by Wiley & Putnam, 1844. Print.

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Glasse, Hannah. The Servants Directory, Improved, Or, House-keepers Companion: Wherein the Duties of the Chamber-maid, Nursery-maid, House-maid, Landry-maid , Scullion or Under-cook, Are Fully and Distinctly Explained: To Which Is Added, Cookery and Pickling, Sufficient to Qualify a Person to Act as Thorough Servant in Any Family … Hinesville, GA: Nova Anglia, n.d. Print.

Harrison, Sarah, and Richard Ware. The House-keeper’s Pocket-book and Compleat Family Cook: Containing above Seven Hundred Curious and Uncommon Receipts in Cookery, Pastry, Preserving, Pickling, Candying, Collaring, &c.: With Plain and Easy Instructions for Preparing and Dressing Every Thing Suitable for an Elegant Entertainment, from Two Dishes to Five or Ten, &c., and Directions for Ranging Them in Their Proper Order: To Which Is Prefix’d, Such a Copious and Useful Bill of Fare of All Manner of Provisions in Season for Every Month of the Year That No Person Need Be at a Loss to Provide an Agreeable Variety of Dishes at a Moderate Expence: With Directions for Making All Sorts of Wines, Mead, Cyder, Shrub, &c. and Distilling Strong-waters, &c. after the Most Approved Method: And Directions for Managing and Breeding Poultry to Advantage: Concluding with Many Excellent Prescriptions, of Singular Efficacy in Most Distempers Incident to the Human Body, Extracted from the Writings of the Most Eminent Physicians. London: Printed for R. Ware, 1751. Print.

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Woolley, Hannah. The Compleat Servant-maid: Or, The Young Maidens Tutor Directing Them How They May Fit, and Qualifie Themselves for Any of These Employments. Viz. Waiting-woman, House-keeper. Chamber-maid, Cook-maid, Under-cook-maid, Nursery-maid, Dairy-maid, Laundry-maid, House-maid, Scullery-maid. Whereunto Is Added a Suppliment Containing the Choicest Receipts and Rarest Secrets in Physick and Chyrurgery; Also for Salting and Drying English Hams Equal to Westphalia. The Compleat Market-man and Market-woman, in Buying Fowl, Fish, Flesh, &c. and to Know Their Goodness or Badness in Every Respect, to Prevent Being Cheated. Never before Printed. London: Printed for E. Tracy, 1704. Print.

Worlidge, John. Dictionarium Rusticum, Urbanicum & Botanicum / Or, a Dictionary of Husbandry, Gardening, Trade, Commerce, and All Sorts of Country-affairs. In Two Volumes. Illustrated with a Great Number of Cutts. London: Knapton, 1726. Print.

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Some of the Images

Chamber Pot – Christies Sale 8032 Syd Levethan The Longridge Collection 25 May 2011 London King Street

Pg 7  Sandby, Paul. At Sandpit Gate. Digital image. RCIN 914329. Royal Collection Trus, n.d. Web.

Pg 9 Sandby, Paul. Women Washing at Sandpit Gate. Digital Image. 1765. Web. 

Pg 10  Colley, Thomas. Lord North in the Suds. Digital Image. Lewis Walpole Library. 1780, Web. 

Pg 11  Caldwall, James. High Life Below Stairs. Digital image. British Museum. N.p., 1772. Web.

Pg 14  Chardin. The Laundress. Digital image. N.p., 1730. Web.

Pg 15  Mercier. Domestick Employment / Washing. Digital image. The British Museum., 1750-1770. Web.

Pg 16  Comenius, Jan Amos, and Charles Hoole. Joh. Amos. Translated into English by Charles Hoole, M.A. for the Use of Young Latin Scholars. London: Printed for S. Leacroft#at the Globe, Charing-Cross, 1777. Print.

Pg 17 Sandby, Paul. Washerwomen by a stream. Digital Image. Private Collection. 1770

Pg 18   .Unknown. Sketch 2 in Sketchbook. Digital Image. National Library of Wales. 1795. Web

Pg 19 Les Costumes François: Represantans Les Differens Etats Du Royaume Avec Les Habillemens Propres à Chaque Etat Et Accompagnes De Reflections Critiques Et Morales. Paris: n.p., 1776. Print.
Johann Christian Klengel. Three Women Doing Laundry by a Farmhouse. Digital image.Philadelphia Museum of Art..  1771. Web.

Pg 20  Sandby, Paul. A Scottish Washerwoman. Digital image. British Museum. 1740s. Web
Öl auf Leinwand. Wäscherinnen, niederländisch. Private Collection. 17th C, Web.

Pg 21 Mesericord Tewkesbury. Woman with bat hitting man. Digital image. Tewkesbury Abbey, 15th C. Web.

Daumier,  Honore. De wasvrouw. Digital Image. Reproductie 1791

Pg 22 Robert, Hubert. La Bievre Digital Image. Private Collection. 1768. Web.

Pg 23 Cavali, Nicolo. Le Arti per via / La Lavandaja. Digital image. British Museum. N.p., 1760- 1770. Web


Pg 24  The great washday before the city, illustrating women’s work.  Splendor Solis. Digital Image. 1531 Web.