Monday, April 4, 2016



I remember when I was 5 years old, in 1965, my grandmother still used an old fashioned washing machine with a hand crank roller to wring out the wet laundry! For her entire life (she died in 1987) she never owned an electric or gas powered drier. All her clothes were dried on the clothes line. As I toss my clothes into my Maytag washer, press a few buttons, throw in a tide pod and walk away I thank my lucky stars I didn’t have to wring out the clothes with a roller, let alone launder clothes the way they did in bygone eras. It was a tedious affair!  

But how DID they launder clothes 400 or 500 years ago? How did they get out tough stains without all of our modern day products? The answer to that question is that they were more ingenious than we give them credit.

It was well known during the 16th Century that there was a link between dirt and disease; however, the knowledge about bacteria was not discovered until the 19th Century. Piped water in the 16th Century was very rare, but was available in several monasteries dating back to the 14th Century.  Water was difficult to transport, so it was a well-established trend to take your washing to the water source.  Much of the work was done outside – even in the winter. There were areas designated for washing. In those areas, the grass was kept mowed so that laundry could be spread on the ground to dry. They also draped their laundry on bushes. Clothes lines were not in use at that time. 

While there were sinks indoors that was used for washing, it was more often just a wooden bench on which there sat a tub or basin of water.  The reason most washing was done outside was because there was a problem of getting rid of the dirty water used indoors as there were no sewage lines like we have in modern times. Often a hole or a “sink hole” was dug outside in which the dirty washing water was deposited, but this meant having to carry the dirty water to the sink hole. This water was then used by the surrounding trees and plants.  However, this practice was problematic in smaller villages, or more populated areas in the city, as this method of getting rid of dirty water resulted in too many “sink holes” being dug in an area which would water log the soil and kill the plants. It wasn’t until later that sewage drains were used. 

Rivers, Rocks, Washing Bats, and Boards:

In many third-world, or less-developed countries, washing clothes in the river is still the normal way of doing laundry. Riverside washing went on well into the 19th century, or longer in rural areas - even when the river froze over in winter.

Stains were usually pre-treated at home before being taken to launder down to the river and there were various and sundry recipes used by the 16th Century housewife to tackle these stains. There were also special tools that were used. One such tool was the washing bat or beetle. Washing bats and beetles have been used for centuries to launder.

Long thin washing bats are not very different from sticks. Both can be used for agitating the cloth, moving it, as well as for beating the dirt out of it. Doing this with a piece of wood was called possing, and various styles of possers, washing dollies, etc., developed as an improvement on plain tree branches. 

Square-shaped washing bats could double up as a scrub board. The names of the wooden beaters varied from region to region: washing-beetles, clothes-beetles, bats, paddles, beatels, bittles, battledores, battling-sticks, battling-staffs. Other names for washing implements were washing-dolly, dolly-legs, dolly-peg, peggy, maiden, possing-stick, poss-stick. The tub was sometimes called a dolly-tub. The beetling-block could be a beetling/battling-bench, or battling-board. 

"Beetle" boards could be used for smoothing ("ironing") too. They often went together with a hammering block, hence the old phrase "between the beetle and the block " to mean "in a tight corner."

Washboards made of rigid metal in a wooden frame came later in history. Two other techniques for shifting dirt are slapping clothes or trampling with bare feet such as is depicted in the black and white photo of 19th Century Scottish women to the left. 
Lye, Bucking, Soaking:

Soaking laundry in lye, cold or hot, was an important way of tackling dirt on white and off-white cloth. It was called bucking, and aimed to whiten as well as cleanse. Dyed fabrics were less common than today, especially for basic items like bed linens and shirts. Ashes and urine were the most important substances for mixing a good "lye". As well as helping to remove stains and encourage a white appearance.

The picture below is a diagram of the 16th Century “washing machine” known as a “buck tub.” 
Not only were undergarments made of linen, but sheets and tablecloths were also made of linen and would need to be laundered regularly. These larger items would often be cleaned by a process called “bucking.”  

A buck tub was a large tub – that looked more like a half barrel – that stood on a stand that was raised about a foot off the ground. It had a spigot set about an inch above the bottom.  A shallow wooden tub was placed under the spigot. Filling the bucking tub – known as laying the buck – was quite a skilled task, as the linen had to be folded and set in such a way that the water would run through all the layers, and the dirty water drained off so as not to leave a dirty mark. Sticks were placed between the bundles of linen so that the water could pass through freely as shown in the diagram above. 

Soap, mainly soft soap made from ash lye and animal fat, was used by washerwomen but usually was paid for and supplied by her employer. Soap was rarely used by the poorest people in medieval times but by the 18th century soap was fairly widespread. It was sometimes kept for finer clothing and for tackling stains, but wasn’t used for the whole wash. Starch and bluing or whiteners were available for better quality linen and clothing later in the 1600s. A visitor to England just before 1700 sounded a little surprised at how much soap was used in London: “At London, and in all other Parts of the Country where they do not burn Wood, they do not make Lye. All their Linnen, coarse and fine, is wash'd with Soap. When you are in a Place where the Linnen can be rinc'd in any large Water, the Stink of the black Soap is almost all clear'd away.” - M. Misson's Memoirs and Observations in his Travels over England (first published in French, 1698)

Drying & Bleaching: 

The “Grand Wash” or the “Great Wash” were names given for the chore of irregular "spring cleaning" of laundry. Soaking in lye and bucking in large wooden bucking tubs were similar to processes used in textile manufacturing. So was the next stage - drying and bleaching clothes and fabrics out of doors. Sunshine helped bleach off-white cloth while drying it. Sometimes cloth was sprinkled at intervals with water and/or a dash of lye to lengthen the process and enhance bleaching. 

In towns, among some mansions, and among textile weavers, an area of mown grass was set aside as a bleaching or drying green, where household linens and clothing could be spread on grass in the daylight. Early settlers in America established communal bleaching areas like those in European towns and villages. Both washing and drying were often public and/or group activities. In warmer parts of Europe some cities provided communal laundry spaces with a water supply. 

People also dried clothes by spreading them on bushes. Large houses sometimes had wooden frames or ropes for drying indoors in poor weather. Outdoor drying frames and clotheslines are seen in the painting from the 16th century, but most people would have been used to seeing laundry spread out to dry on the grass, hedgerows etc. Clothes pegs/pins seem to have been rare before the 18th century.

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