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 preparing meals.
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.
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.
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.)
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'
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
After the wash
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.
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.