Based on childhood recollections
of working class family life in north London in Edwardian times.
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
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.
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
The hot water for washday
Before breakfast, the
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.
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
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.
The washday soap
Sunlight carbolic soap used with washing soda for the
weekly wash before the age of detergents.
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.
At last - breakfast
It was while the whites were boiling and the coloureds were being soaked
that my mother
gave us breakfast.
Washing the 'coloureds'
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 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
After breakfast the coloureds were washed in the wooden tub.
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
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
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
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 ones with handles and 'stumpy 'legs' but it was
just to use a wooden stick.
Rinsing and mangling
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
'Tin baths' of various sizes.
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.
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.
The Blue rinse
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.)
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.
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.
After the wash
The washing had to be dried: outside in good weather and
indoors in bad weather. Then began the
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.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.