Laundry in Victorian Times
The never-ending job of keeping up with laundry is something lots of us bitch about. I don’t mind it that much and still, I’m sitting here writing instead of facing the three loads waiting to be folded.Think Laundry sucks for you? Let's do laundry the 19th century way! Click To Tweet
We have it so much easier than our foremothers did. It just can’t be denied! Those of us in first world countries have washing machines that do almost everything for us, and most of us have clothes dryers that only require us to throw in the wet clothes and press a button.
Generally speaking, our modern laundry routine goes something like this:
- Gather and sort clothing and linens
- Throw a load into the washing machine
- Add some Laundry detergent
- Press the start button
- Wait an hour
- Throw everything into the dryer
- Press the start button
- Wait 45 minutes or so
- Fold and put away the laundry. Or dump it onto the ever-growing mountain on the bed in the guest bedroom
- Repeat a couple of times a week
What was the routine in the U.S. or Great Britain for doing laundry in Victorian Times?
For folks in the 19th century the laundering process began long before wash day. Households made their own soap, which was a week-long operation involving making lye, rendering tallow, and combining them to make the soap. The soap was then cured for at least three months, so prudent homemakers ensured they made plenty of soap at one time! Lots of soft water was needed for the washing, so households collected rainwater to use for the washing if at all possible.
The actual washing was usually done on Mondays, as every housewife knows that “Monday is the washing day with all good housekeepers,”  but in the 1800’s preparation for a Monday washing began Saturday, or even Friday if there was much mending to do beforehand.Is it true that 'Monday is the washing day with all good housekeepers'? Click To Tweet
Here’s our routine for doing laundry in Victorian times:
- Gather up and sort clothing and linens on Saturday, mending any that need it.
- On Sunday soak items in warm water with a little soap and and soda or lye. Each item must be pressed in one at a time.
- Get up very early Monday morning to gather wood for the fire, haul 20-40 gallons of water to a giant copper pot, and fill several other barrels with water.
- Begin the four-stage washing, consisting of firsting, seconding, boiling and rinsing. 
- Firsting: With clothing turned right side out, soap and rub the clothes until they are clean. Wring each item.
- Seconding: Turn clothes inside out, and using fresh water repeat the soaping, rubbing and wringing.
- Boiling: Boil white cotton clothing and linens in soapy water. Remove from the boiling water using long sticks. Wring the items out again.
- Rinsing: Thoroughly rinse all items in fresh clean water. You definitely don’t want to wear lye-soaked clothing! Wring out everything one more time. 
- Move the clothes to the drying area. Utilize clothing lines if available, and bushes or the lawn if not.
It’s important to note that this washing process was done primarily to body linen (the clothing worn under the outer clothing) and to household linens like bedding, towels, kitchen cloths and so forth. Most outer clothing couldn’t be washed with this harsh process and some items could only be brushed. Body linen helped protect the more delicate outer clothing from the sweat, body oils and general griminess the body put out. But still. Ugh. I’m imagining the aroma of even genteel folks in the summertime in Central North Carolina. It must have really been…. something, eh?
S.S. Wigley, author of Domestic Economy: A Classbook for Girls, assures us that “when the clothes are ‘on the line,’ the worst part of the washing business is over, unless the line or the pegs are dirty, when the clothes may need washing again.” 
I’m not sure the worst was over, because after the items were dried, they needed to be starched and ironed the next day. No awesome Rowenta*  to glide effortlessly across your clothes. In the 1800’s ironing was an awful, miserable, hot, dangerous job that took all day. A typical household “sad iron” or flat iron weighed anywhere from 5 to 10 pounds (or more, for tailors’ irons), and had to be heated on a stove. A homemaker needed at least two of these irons so that one could be heating up while the other naturally cooled down as it was being used. Another popular type of iron called a charcoal iron or box iron utilized hot charcoal in a reservoir to keep it hot. Of course the whole thing – handle included – became farking hot, so our happy homemaker of the 1800’s had to use a thick rag or pad to hold the iron. The irons had to be kept scrupulously clean, which was no easy task in a dusty dirty kitchen. In 1870 a 19 year old American gal named Mary Florence Potts invented, patented, and aggressively marketed an iron that had a detachable handle, which one took off while the iron was heating on the stove.  Still, only a small proportion of housewives had this miracle iron.
Feeling better about your laundry pile?
After all of that work, putting the clothes away must have seemed like a mini-vacation. I’m trying to imagine going through this process when you have six kids! I do laundry for four people and have at least one load a day. Keeping up with laundry in Victorian times sounds like an impossible task. But here’s the thing: We change our sheets once a week, our towels twice a week, underclothing every day, husband’s work shirts every day, and most kids’ clothes every day (as they tend to get dirty almost as soon as they’re put on). Folks in the 19th century just didn’t do that! How often they did laundry depended on lots of things: The amount of linen a family owned, whether they had servants, the availability of water, soap, etc.
I think I’ll head to the closest laundry basket and whistle a tune while I sort, wash, fold, and not-iron. :-)
Does this change your view on doing laundry? I learned so much in researching this post. Truly I feel lucky now to have the “drudgery” of daily laundry.