Washday Blues

Whitecap Washer Wringer from Beatty Bros. Turn of the century. © Adèle Emm

Borax, cuckoo-pint (arum), urine, soda, animal fats and wood ash!  This toxic list of ingredients is why great grandmama’s hands were constantly red, sore and chapped. Why? From the weekly wash.

Women on the brink of the shame and ignominy of entering the workhouse might have taken in other people’s washing.  Each halfpenny perhaps postponed another day from becoming a pauper.   So how, I wonder, did they manage to pay for fuel the heat the washtub water, candles to light their dark cottage or cellar (condensation from the steam oozing down the walls!) and soap towhich, as my old physics teacher insisted, makes ‘water wetter.’   And the essentials of a washtub, dolly (posser in some dialects), washboard and mangle?  How could she afford them?

Answer; many women didn’t.  For those on the brink of penury, she might specialise in the laundry – heavy duty fabrics only; such women certainly weren’t trusted with fine linen or silks.  Others, who, in a previous wealthier existence had a mangle, took in wet clothes, manoeuvred through the mangle and handed them back for drying.  Some ironed  whilst others starched.    Whatever they did, hands were raw.

The social history of washerwomen and laundresses is the topic of my next lecture.  There are still a few places left at the Society of Genealogists, London, on Wednesday 13th February.  For further details and to book your place click here.

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