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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
Receipt for Soapmaking
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
Description of Clapping
Tramping Laundry is best known as a Scottish Custom, There is evidence of tramping Laundry in Wales, Italy and the Netherlands as well.
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
“a cloth is put upon the tub and ashes laid upon that; upon these ashes boiling water is poured”
”at last beat with hand beatles (that is flat pieces of wood with short handles)”
Bibliography, Credits & Notes
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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.