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Florence Cole as a child

Monday washdays: the
laundry in bygone years

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It always amazed me how women used to manage on washdays when I was a child in the early 1900s. There was no running hot water and there were no detergents, washing machines, spin dryers, tumble dryers or rubber gloves. It was just hard physical grind.

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Washday - always Monday

Washday was once a week, always on a Monday, and it took the whole day, starting between five and six o'clock in the morning. There was no time for much else, including preparing meals.

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The hot water for washday

Before breakfast, the copper in the scullery was lit to heat the water. Filling it took about six bucketfuls, all drawn from the single brass cold water tap over the sink. There was of course no running hot water.

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Washing the 'whites'

The whites (sheets, tablecloths and handkerchiefs) were separated because they had to be treated differently: the whites for boiling and the coloureds for soaking and then washing.

Once the water in the copper was hot, some of it was baled out into a wooden tub.

The coloureds were put into that to soak. The whites were put into the rest of the water in the copper and set to boil with soap and soda added.

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The only one way that the weekly wash was easier in the past

Difficult as washday was, the volume of washing was nowhere near as much as today.

Underwear was certainly washed frequently, but thick top clothes tended have to last with just dirty spots being sponged off.

One sheet from each bed was washed weekly with the last week's top sheet becoming the next week's bottom sheet. (Bedding was sheets and blankets, as duvets were unheard of, and the blankets were washed once a year in good drying weather in the summer.)

Pat Cryer, webmaster

The washday soap

We lived in a hard water area, so the soda was necessary to prevent the soap producing scum. The soap was carbolic, made by Sunlight.

Sunlight carbolic soap used with washing soda for the weekly wash before the age of detergents.

Sunlight carbolic soap used with washing soda for the weekly wash before the age of detergents.

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At last - breakfast

It was while the whites were boiling and the coloureds were being soaked that my mother gave us breakfast.

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Washing the 'coloureds'

Why wooden tubs

I assume that the wooden tub rather than a tin bath was used for washing to keep the water hot. Wood would also have been quieter than tin, too, when the dolly was banged around in it. Unfortunately my mother does not explain this. If you can supply further information, please let me know.

Pat Cryer, webmaster,
and daughter of the author

Wooden tub as used for washing clothes in olden times

Wooden tub.


A washboard used in a sink of hot soapy water. or tin bath. Rubbing the washing up and down against the ridges forced out the dirt.

A washboard used in a sink of hot soapy water or tin bath. Rubbing the washing up and down against the ridges forced out the dirt.

After breakfast the coloureds were washed in the wooden tub.

Depending on the wash load, some of the coloureds were washed by forcing them up and down onto a washboard, a corrugated metal or glass sheet in a wooden frame. My mother had to stand to do this in order to get enough pressure to force the clothes onto the ridges in order to get the dirt out, and it was very hard, hot, steamy work.

Wooden dolly used for agitating the water when washing clothes - before the age of washing machines.

Wooden dolly used for agitating the water when washing clothes - before the age of washing machines. The handles were held in both hands and swished around.

Alternatively or additionally the washing was poked and agitated around in the hot soapy water with a wooden contraption called a dolly.

There were some quite sophisticated dollies with handles and 'stumpy legs'; but it was quite common just to use a wooden stick.

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Rinsing and mangling

Sketch of a woman using a mangle, early 1900s

There is a separate page on the mangle with a larger, clearer picture.

All the washing had to be rinsed several times. The wooden stick or dolly served to lift it out of the water, although wooden tongs were also used for lifting.

The baths for rinsing were oval galvanised ones, commonly known as 'tin baths'. They came in various sizes, all with handles at each end so that they could be hung up on the wall in the yard outside when not in use.

galvanised baths, commonly known as tin baths

'Tin baths' of various sizes.

The women had to be strong to lift sheets and tablecloths in and out of the various baths because wet washing was much heavier than a dry load.

The washing was put through the mangle to get rid of as much dirty water as possible, and then it was let drop into a bath of cold rinsing water. It had to be mangled again after each rinse.

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The Blue rinse

Reckitts blue bag as used in the first half of the twentieth century in rinsing water to make washing look whiter.

 Blue bag to make the washing look whiter.

The final rinse of the whites was in blue water from a bluebag which was a small muslin cloth tied round a small cube of blue substance and kept in a bowl of water.

It was important to be sure that the bag never leaked because otherwise little particles of blue would come out and leave small blue dots on the washing. (The blue bag was also used to dab on bites and stings to ease the pain.)

Another use for the blue bag

When my friend fell into a patch of stinging nettles, my mother dabbed her skin with Reckitts Blue because it was supposed to soothe the rash!

Christine Tolton, formerly Christine Culley

After rinsing, as much water as possible had to be removed before the clothes dried. Small items were wrung out but most things had to be put through the mangle again.

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The tablecloths were starched. Starch was bought in granules, looking rather like dry stem ginger, and it had to be made up specially every time it was used, It was first mixed with a little cold water, and then boiling water was quickly poured onto it. If the water was not hot enough, the starch would not thicken, and if the stirring wasn't rapid enough, the starch would go lumpy. The process was rather like making custard or sauce.

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After the wash

The washing had to be dried: outside in good weather and indoors in bad weather. Then began the cleaning up.

Drying the wash in frosty weather

My mother would put her whites on the line in the frost because, she said, it helped to keep them white. I used to help her shake them vigorously before bringing them in to get rid of the frozen water so that they would dry more quickly.

Anne Jameson

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Women's hands

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer

With no rubber gloves and no labour saving devices, can you imagine what women's hands must have been like with all this washing!?

Smooth hands were a status symbol, showing that a woman had servants to do the washing and cleaning; and ordinary working class women, always tried to hide their red and rough hands when they went out. This was probably the reason for the fashion for elegant, fitting gloves.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.