A Little Laundry on the Prairie

March 6, 2016

As I have mentioned at various times on this blog, Our Dear Girl loves the Little House on the Prairie books. These are the recollections of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneering childhood in the Midwest US in the latter part of the nineteenth century. As we were reading These Happy Golden Years (1943) for bedtime reading recently, we came across a description of Laura brushing and sponging her clothes, to prepare them for another week of teaching school. This image caused me to pause. I don’t think I have ever brushed or sponged any item of clothing ever. I wash them, mostly in the washing machine, often when they are not even actually dirty, maybe just sweaty or smoky. That single line of text got me thinking about laundry practices, our relationship to our clothing and the changes to both over time.


Lilly Martin Spencer, The Jolly Washerwoman, 1851, image from Hood Museum of Art

In a newspaper column last year, domestic historian Ruth Goodman described the washing line as an invention of coal fires. Prior to coal fires, people used wood ash to remove grease from clothing, rinsed it in the river and hung it on bushes to dry. With the advent of coal fires (producing no wood ash), people required soap and hot water to remove grease. Laundry now took place in the home, close to boilers and fires and needed lines to dry the washing away from the dirty ground. Similarly, sociologist Elizabeth Shove has explored how laundry technologies and ideas of cleanliness have changed over time. In the 1500s, folks changed their shirt as an alternative to washing their body as clothes were seen to act as sponges. Nowadays, we wash our clothing and ourselves frequently to be rid of body smells or emanations which are all associated with dirtiness, associating the perfume of laundry detergents with freshness and cleanliness.

These changes have implications for resource use. Whilst technological innovations in home laundering have decreased washing temperatures, water use has increased exponentially. Shove argues that sustainable resource management does not reside in an individual’s commitment to minimising water use and energy use in the laundry but rather in changing the idea of what is normal practice for everyone. That means changing notions of cleanliness and transforming laundry technologies. The impact of technology can be seen in differences between European water consumption where front loaders are common and the higher rates of water consumption in the US where top loaders are more prevalent. Australia is transitioning culturally from top loader washing machines as the norm to front loaders becoming more commonplace and this is likely to have contributed to the reduction in domestic water consumption.

1200px-Washing_MachineWashing Machine, 2009, Matthew Paul Argall, image from Wikicommons

Washing clothes is just so easy now isn’t it? Gathering up the clothes from the laundry basket, you don’t even need to separate whites and coloureds if you do a cold wash. They are bundled into the washing machine, buttons are pressed and you can go and do something else until it is ready to be hung on the line or transferred to a dryer. I hand wash my woollens, and soak the occasional white thing but everything else goes into the washing machine without a thought. I personally don’t control the amount of water I am using. I don’t walk to a river. I don’t pump it from the well or even turn the taps to fill the tub. When I use the washing machine, whilst I can hear the sounds of water rushing and sluicing, I don’t even see it being used. I am quite alienated from the actual process of washing. My laundry culture is centred on the washing machine. Whilst I can buy a machine that uses less water, unless my ideas of what needs washing change or I utilise other methods of laundering (such as airing, brushing, spot cleaning), then I am still using lots of water and energy.

And then, something else we read in our Laura book, made me realise that along with the ease of washing and my contemporary ideas on what constitutes cleanliless, my washing frequency was also being determined by my relationship with the clothes themselves, the quantity of them, the fabrics they were made from and the way in which they had been manufactured.

So let us meet up with Laura again for a moment and another paragraph we wondered over at bedtime. It is an unusually detailed (for this author) description of a dress.

Then carefully over all [the bustle and under petticoats] she buttoned her best petticoat, and over all the starched petticoats she put on the underskirt of her new dress. It was of brown cambric, fitting smoothly around the top over the bustle, and gored to flare smoothly down over the hoops. At the bottom, just missing the floor was a twelve-inch-wide flounce, bound with an inch-wide band of plain brown silk. The poplin was not plain poplin, but striped with an openwork silk stripe.

Then over this underskirt and her starched white corset cover, Laura put on the polonaise. Its smooth, long sleeves fitted her arms perfectly to the wrists, where a band of the plain silk ended them. The neck was high, with a smooth band of the plain silk around the throat. The polonaise fitted tightly and buttoned all down the front with small round buttons covered with the plain brown silk. Below the smooth hips it flared and rippled down and covered the top of the flounce on the under-skirt. A band of the plain silk finished the polonaise at the bottom.  p.163

The detail given here is significant. This is an important piece of clothing. Like many folks during this time, Laura didn’t own many dresses, one Sunday dress, a dress for teaching school during the week and an old dress for chores. This was Laura’s first grown up dress, a symbol of adulthood and growing independence. She was 15 and had worked for the local seamstress every Saturday for three months to afford the 10 yards of brown poplin fabric ordered especially from Chicago. Her mother had hand-stitched the entire dress as they did not own a treadle sewing machine, although these were becoming an increasingly common part of the home economy.


A Day Dress with Curasse Bodice, 1874-7, Gloucester Museum, illustration by Janet Arnold (1993) Patterns of Fashion 2

Protecting clothes was important as you really didn’t have many. Ruth Goodman points out that a washing line was a status symbol in the nineteenth century. It meant you had more than one set of clothes. The laundry was hard work and probably all but impossible in the winter so Laura would have only washed what was necessary, probably undergarments and pinafores or aprons. These pinafores and aprons protected over garments from getting dirty and worn and thus from the washing experience. Washing itself was hard on clothes at this time with all that boiling, rubbing, mangling and ironing. You could not have just put the brown poplin with the silk edging in wash very easily.  By sponging, brushing and protecting, the life of clothes could be maximised.

Most of what we bundle into the wash are robust cottons and synthetics sewn on industrial machines. If they don’t wear well, pill, rip or discolour, it doesn’t matter, we have plenty more. In Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline explores how clothing has become so cheap, so easily acquired, that we don’t really value, attend or repair individual pieces any more. As a society, we are distanced from the effort required to cut clothing and stitch them together and divested of any compelling need to make clothes last.

Many home sewers have posted about their growing awareness of the manufacturing processes and labour practices implicit in modern clothing as they learn to sew their own clothes. Doing-it-yourself can reveal the stages and labour and skills required to construct garments. It can make the garments and their making visible and significant.

Home sewing also changes your relationship to the washing machine. I have noticed that I wash my homemade things much less than my shop bought ones. I don’t want to damage them or wear them out too much by the washing process. I worry about my hand-stitched facings or too-narrow seam allowances being roughly used in the machine and fraying. The process of making the garment by hand, has invested me in its life significantly more than when the traces their maker and making are all but obscured by their sheer number and cheapness on the shop rack.

I never thought about my laundry practices beyond cold washing and line drying much before. The everydayness of it, can make it seem unimportant and invisible. However, 23% of domestic water consumption in Australia, and  15 – 40%  in American households occurs in the laundry. It is not just laundry inventions and attitudes to cleanliness that define our experience of laundry (and associated resource use) but also our relationship with our clothes, their materials and their manufacture and how these elements interrelate with each other. I am certainly not nostalgic for washing in the river or weaving my entire family’s wardrobe but historical and cultural elements that make our contemporary experience of laundry fascinate me.

What is your experience of laundry? Do you treat your handmade clothes/sweaters differently to your bought ones?



Arnold, Janet (1993) Patterns of Fashion 2: English Women’s dresses and their construction c.1860-1940, Drama Books

Burman, Barbara (ed) (1999) The Culture of Sewing: Gender, Consumption and Home Dressmaking, Berg

Cline, Elizabeth (2012) Over-dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Penguin

Goodman, Ruth (2014) Why You Should Ditch the Tumble Dryer and Use Your Washing Line, The Guardian, 8 August

Shove, Elizabeth (2003) Converging Conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience, Journal of Consumer Policy, 26:4, 395-418

Wilder, Laura Ingalls (1971) first published 1943, These Happy Golden Years, Harper Trophy