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


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  1. When I lived in England my neighbor boiled water in a huge copper pot outside and washed her clothes in it. I washed diapers in a pail after I had soaked them in some bleach. Then try and dry them in the winter outside…ha. In Scotland on a male medical ward we changed draw sheets when necessary and switched sheets around quite cleverly so the foot part wouldn’t get in their face. The whole bed got changed once a week when they were bathed. ‘Top and tail’ and back care were given every day and NO ONE got bed sores. In the maternity ward, sheets were changed more frequently. In Montreal I had a ringer washing machine, hoses to the sink, in Toronto I went to a laundry place but had a great clothesline and in Manitoba I had no running water/plumbing and 2 toddlers. You could ‘dry’ clothes ona line in sub freezing weather as long as you didn’t bend them when you took them off the line…they could ‘break’.
    Geeze, I’m tired thinking of all this…….. I now have a top loading washer that only puts in as much water and you put in clothes and I love it. I can spin fleece out in it and woolen sweaters/skirts whatever. I know I sound like I am 102 years old 🙂 There is probably more but that’s enough blethering for now.

    1. Gosh, thanks Susan, you have experienced a lot of laundry practices! It is particularly fascinating about the changes in hospital practices regarding laundry. We all sound 102 when we remember stuff though. My children ask me if I was alive in the Industrial Revolution! My mum used to hang our nappies in UK winters and bring them in snap frozen too. And when we moved into our current house which was built in 1924 we found a mangle in the shed, galvanised tubs and the concrete slab where the old copper would have stood was still in the leanto kitchen, as were the concrete troughs. I am old enough to remember using an old twin tub washing machine when I was student. My children though think that putting clean clothes in the dirty clothes basket is a magical way of them appearing folded and back in their wardrobes…I am on to this now!

  2. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books so much – so it is a real treat to read this post. Of course, I never picked up the details you have, Rebecca – all so interesting, and thought-provoking. I inherited a lot of my grandmother’s old quality knits so I was hand-washing from an early age, and I have to say it is a chore! – and all that damp stuff hanging around in poorly heated homes. So I love my washing machine, and I now wash almost everything in it – including my hand-knits (on a wool wash). However, I do think we wash too much – we don’t tolerate the slightest mark or stain. So, I’m trying to be more laid-back about healthy dirt … and nobody’s complaining about the smell (yet) 🙂

    1. Dear Katherine, I too feel that fine line of gratitude for the ease of the washing machine (seeing us through nappies, wet beds and wool washing) and the concern of washing things too much, for too little reason just because it is easier to follow my washing ritual than to perhaps sponge something, or brush something. Your comment on damp houses and drying washing inside reminds me that Australia (well southern Australia anyway) is a particularly easy place to dry things in. Even in winter, whilst it may be coldish, it is rarely wet for more than a few days together so drying inside is not so much of a problem.

  3. Fascinating post. I remember my grandmother’s (born 1905) laundry stories. Monday was wash day, all the white pinafores were washed first (lots of sisters) as they were used to keep dresses clean, then the white cotton underwear, then the collars, and finally any other items that were too soiled to be spot cleaned that week. And sanitary products were of course cotton cloths to be soaked and washed. A brother once mashed a finger in the mangle (which was still in a spare room in the family house when I was a child in the late 60s). Irons were heated on the range and were hot enough if they fizzed when you spat on them. I could go.

    I’ve always been under the impression that it was the advent of readily available cotton cloth that made as much difference as the shift to coal fires, simply because it’s relatively easy to launder.

    Oh, and me are my girls are all Laura fans too 🙂

    1. Dear Annie, so many of us have grown up with stories and artifacts of past laundry practices, it still feels quite present in many ways. Perhaps present enough for us still to reflect with curiousity upon our current practices. Yes, I think you are right about the cotton, although interestingly the increasing dominance of cheap cotton for clothing would have occurring at the same time as the transition to coal, so perhaps it is one of those major multi-technology shifts in everyday cultural practices. Thank you for your reflections.

  4. Hi Rebecca, My lost comment was just that this reminded me of the general issues that we have with being clean in itself. I remember hearing an interview a few years ago with a woman (Katherine Ashenfelter) who wrote a book called The Dirt on Clean, which I think is a historical look at changes in cultural ideas about being clean (US-centric I believe). Although the statistics are always a little bit hazy in this area, we likely use up way more water on showers than we do on our laundry. This is certainly true of me.

    1. Dear Stephanie, Yes, showering is a whole other cultural practice that has changed so much and has significant environmental impacts…and so hard to shift one’s habits even more than laundry I think being associated with comfort and pleasure as well as cleanliness. The Dirt of Clean sounds fascinating, I love historical books like this.

  5. I wish I could sound more pious and say that the drought here in Northern California has changed my water use. It has, but what really did the trick was switching from an office job to a freelance home-based, work-in-my-pajamas job. Add to this my mother’s teaching me top-and-tail bed making at an early age and watch that laundry pile dwindle to once every two weeks.

    I thanks my lucky stars for clean, drinkable, running water every day! And yet, Rebecca, I harbor a fantasy of being a Victorian Lady with a maid who will unstitch, wash, and restitch my gowns, as I attend to correspondence and practice the harpsichord. Sigh…not my fate this lifetime.

    PS. Brilliant string of comments. Returning more than once to this wonderful post!

    1. Dear Kate, now that is a very interesting observation that you make about it being a change in your lifestyle and time availability rather than your intellectual understanding of drought that really changed your laundry practices. This observation taps into the research that Elizabeth Shove and others are doing on sustainable practices. Their work points out again and again that information and education have less effect on changing behaviour than addressing the technologies and other life practices which are associated with it. That fortnightly laundry pile sounds like an achievement I can only dream of. And speaking of dreams, I think we all wish at times, to be entirely freed from chores, drudgery and responsibilities. Correspondence and harpsichord sounds rather appealing!

  6. In response to Kate…I LOL. Not in this lifetime is right. Did you know that all Kimonos are/were woven on looms not much larger than 13″ and when they needed to be washed they Were unstiched,
    washed, stretched and re stitched. I was not sure re this until I saw rolls of woven Japanese fabric in a store in Berkeley…where else 🙂

    1. Oh that is interesting Susan, the kimono as piece of sewing architecture is probably well suited to unstitching and restitching. Bags not being the Victorian maid doing the same on one of those dresses! There is a lovely little story in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel, Cranford of the laundering palaver of a lace collar which had to be soaked in milk to get the stains out. The cat ate it in error and the ladies had to wait for it to pass through the cat before relaundering the precious lace.

      1. I saw that episode of Cranford!! Laughed my head off.
        My mother had a mangle washer with all the tubs and stuff that went with it and shaved her soap from a bar of Fels Naphtha. Smelled very “earthy”.
        Living in the city is not conducive to hanging your clothes outside. My window sills are always dirty, even though the windows are closed so I use a dryer.
        The top loading washer with a laundry tub next to it is my favorite because I can put a lot of fleece into it, soak, spin out and redo until it is clean. Love my washer!!

  7. I try to treat my all my clothes well. As a child, we had ‘play’ clothes to wear at home on the farm and ‘good’ clothes to wear everywhere else. We could get as dirty as we wanted in out play clothes but we had to be careful in our good clothes; the same habit holds true today.
    Most of my clothes are handmade but even the ones I buy, such as tights, jeans, and shoes, are paid for with hours of my life so try not to abuse them overly until they have reached play clothes status.

    1. Dear Sox, thank you for your reflections. It makes perfect sense to have a set of clothes for good and a set for rough. The idea of the pinafore is the same concept, keeping the clothes underneath in good repair. This can only prolong the life of our clothes. You are right too, that the clothes we buy are paid for by our labour, by the ‘hours of my life’ as you so poignantly phrase it, and so looking after clothes can be respectful both to oneself and to the environment that generated the materials. The sheer cheapness and overwhelming plenty of clothing today can obscure this relation I think, particular for a generation that has only ever know cheap, plentiful clothes.

  8. Hello Rebecca. Another fascinating, thought-provoking post. Thank you!

    I wondered if you had read Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourne’? There are some really wonderful descriptions of laundry day and cleaning in general in that book, written from the point of view of a maid in the Bennett’s (from ‘Pride and Prejudice’) household. She mentions the terrible chillblains of the maids dealing with mountains of household laundry, to be washed by hand (water carried in from the well outside). She also mentions the bucket of bloodied linens from all the ladies of the house bleeding at more or less the same time; and the terrible bucket of soaking nappies when the infant child of their aunt comes to visit. Also the soiled petticoat hems that must be made white again after Elizabeth Bennett walking through the muddy fields, with no care for the work she is making for the maids! I love this kind of historical detail!

    1. Dear Fiona, Thank you for your comment. I have not read Longbourne but will seek it out now. I find the workings of these great houses fascinating, so much labour undertaken by so many so that so few could lead a life devoid of labour! I enjoyed Gosford Park for the same reason. The visceral intimacy of this work is mind boggling to us now. Ah, how those maids would have loved a washing machine eh…they knew all too well just where the water was coming from and just how much was needed!

  9. Oh, I also remembered, in another of Laura Ingalls’ books, where the family is in the covered wagon, heading west, that they stop for the day in a place with a creek so that Ma and the girls can wash the linens, and the iron them. Iron heated in a campfire, I think! Details like this really struck me re-reading these books to my kids. I read them myself as a child, but of course different things strike you as an adult reader…

    1. Yes, I think I remember that scene too. Did they spread everything out on bushes and grass to dry? That is laundry all tangled up with notions of respectability and social identity too I guess. Yes, we read these book so differently as adults which is wonderful really as you get both the adventure story your child sees and historical details we see.

      1. Unless they were killing bugs! Living in Uganda, ironing got rid of parasites. Obviously the midwest US climate is not like Uganda, but they did have malaria (ague) in Minnesota in those days … so the ironing could have served a useful purpose. Not getting rid of malaria, but something else that was also around then, that we don’t worry about now.

        1. Gosh, I never thought about ironing as a protective practice before Erika. So glad there is no malaria at our house!

  10. Fascinating post and comments, thanks to everyone. I don’t think I wash, myself or clothes or sheets, as much as many people, but this is undoubtedly due to laziness (or priorities) rather than environmental concern! However I do like a good bath for comfort reasons especially in the winter. What do I remember about laundry? We had one of those brilliant hanging drying racks in the kitchen, which I loved to hoist up by the rope, but needless to say I have no recollection of how all the clothes got clean or onto the rack. My grandmother taught me how to wash woollens and dry them stretched out on newspaper, and I always think of her when I have a sweater to wash. Hmmm…. Now you’ve set me thinking…..I suspect there are more memories to come out of the closet.

    1. Dear Polly, I have not heard of laying woollens out on newspaper before although it makes sense as the paper would absorb any moisture, hastening the drying process. I most often use a towel which I guess performs the same function only then you have to dry the towel. Do you remember what happened to the newspapers afterwards? Were they thrown away, used to wrap rubbish for the bin or dried and burned?

  11. I definitely treat home made garments with greater delicacy and respect… and I also wash clothes which are especial favourites separately either handwashing or on a delicate cycle. I try and use an eco wash to use less water too.

    In India they have vast laundries where men toil in the water wielding clothes around their heads and whacking them on the stone basins. This seems to work really well apparently, though not so much fun for the men in the water… but no electricity involved. A variation on washing in a river and rubbing clothes on rocks….

    My Mother had a boiler where mysterious things were boiled … I used to turn the mangle getting my fingers stuck now and then. Washing machines arrived and that was the end of all that! Mangles are now picturesque items to display… and coppers now contain aspidistras!!!

    Such a huge amount of social history, folklore etc… lavender bushes to scent sheets… which day of the week to wash on…. all history now.

    Thank you for such a refreshing, clean and folded post!!!

    1. Dear Lydia, thank you for such a thoughtful comment. That is really interesting that you also treat your handmade clothes differently at washing time, I do wonder if it is our insight into their making that changes our relation to them. Your recollection of the boiling of mysterious things has just prompted an old memory of mine of my mum boiling handkerchiefs in a special saucepan set aside for the purpose. My brother and I used to call it Handkerchief Soup. The physicality of the Indian laundry you describe, contrasts so strongly with the absence of labour/awareness associated with machine washing and drying. It is hard to comprehend the sheer physical labour involved unmechanised laundry practices.

      1. Yes, you are quite right the mysterious things were indeed hankies, huge ones… does anyone use handkerchiefs these days?

  12. Great discussion, Rebecca! I am a really bad housekeeper to be honest, but I always loved doing laundry for some reason. My first laundry memory brings me back to my childhood, to a little village where I used to spend my summer breaks as a kid with my grandparents. The village is very far away from town and at that time we didn’t even have the electricity there, so washing machine wasn’t even an option. So, whenever we had to do the laundry, me (I was 6-8 back then) and my dear Granny would take a huge wash basin and wash the clothes by hand in the garden and then we had to rinse it somehow. We would take these basins and walk 1 km to the nearby river, find the biggest rock as close to the deep water as possible and rinse every single piece in the river. I was fascinated by this process. Of course, as a kid I wasn’t able to carry the “real” clothes, so I had my own little wash-basin and I had my doll clothes in it 🙂 And then when we were done, we would walk back to the house. I always wanted to help to put the clothes on the ropes to dry and my Granny always allowed me. I would do an awful job, putting the clothes to dry, it was so heavy from all the water that I just didn’t have the strength to put it properly and very often it would fall down in mud. But my Granny never said a word of reproach, just gently fixing it while I wasn’t watching… Oh my, this post brought so many memories…

    These memories always make me appreciate how convenient it is to have a washing machine, but at the same time I realize that I would never have this experience again… And just like you I catch myself washing my store clothes much more often than the handmade.

    Thank you for this post, Rebecca! I want to call my Granny now and remind her about these precious moments we used to have together!

    1. Dear Alina, What an extraordinarily clear and detailed recollection you have of laundry with your Granny. It seems that your Granny’s teaching of laundry through role play and mirroring her own actions were both a testament to her patience and fondness for her grand daughter and to the significance of ‘doing’ the laundry in her life. These were practical life skills and knowledges she was passing on. Russia is such a place of contrasts it would seem, that, at a similar period in time you can have village laundry being hauled to the river and space technology being manufactured in giant industrial complexes. Thank you so much for sharing such a special story with us.

  13. This is such a brilliant post and wonderful discussion. You’re right that we’re very lucky to have washing machine and that we mostly take them for granted. When I remember my first washing machine was a twin tub that required a bit of work I appreciate the efficient front loader I have today. My parents were busy working so from the age of 8 my brother and I were in charge of our own washing. Looking back it seems young but I quite enjoyed the accomplishment and the independence of it. I think it also helped me connect earlier with caring for my clothes. I’m lucky enough to live in a place that get lots of sun so I air a lot of my clothes to lessen the wear and tear on them.
    I do sometimes wonder how the world would have smelled in past times.

    1. Dear Rachael, I love that you cut your laundry teeth on a twin tub too! That was my first washing machine when I moved out of home. You had to be very present for it, I seem to remember, moving clothes between tubs, and retaining water to rinse with. Gosh, you were a capable 8 year old. It makes me think my eldest might be able to take on a bit more of the laundry particularly as I have moved up from the old twin tub! I am so glad you have also raised the smell question as I wonder that alot too. We have become so smell phobic of biologically derived smells but tolerate synthetic off-gassing smells to the point where you can buy ‘New Car’ smells for the car! I remember reading in the Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England that the first indication you would have of approaching a town on foot would be the stench of waste. In an environment where the smells of human waste, tanneries, butcher shops and dye shops are normal, a bit of sweat probably barely registers as a smell at all. Thanks for getting us thinking!

      1. Popping in here Rebecca…. I was the proud owner of a new twin tub on the 3rd floor of a flat in Notting Hill back in the 70’s. I am afraid I forgot to turn off the first tub whilst filling with the end result that I flooded through the downstairs flat, the one below that and on into the basement!!! Just remembered after reading the words twin tub…

        1. Twin tubs did require lots of close attention as I remember! I think we flooded the laundry a few times but since it was just a covered lane that ran beside the house it was OK. I do remember it also had a habit of ripping the elastic off underwear. Oh those crazy twin tub days!

  14. Hi Rebecca, I always enjoy your posts, they’re thought-provoking and interesting. You may enjoy ‘Wash-Day’ in ‘My Naughty Little Sister’ series by Dorothy Edwards. I loved it.

    Our house is very old and of slab hut construction. The woman we bought it off was ninety when we bought it and she had lived in it from birth. She remembered her father lining the walls (previously lined with newspaper) with masonite when she was a girl. She also remembered her mother washing the clothes in the backyard with a tub.

    I couldn’t help but think how much had changed in that time. I could speak to someone who in living memory had seen clothes being washed in the backyard.

    How much has changed, and in so short a time! I’m not complaining!

    1. Dear Rachel, thank you for your comment. You make a significant point that so many of these recollections allude to, that in our own lifetime, either through our own memories or the memories of others we are associated with, we have witnessed substantial shifts in laundry practices from time consuming manual labour to swift mechanisation. Yet, at an everyday level, we think of our current laundry practices as natural, normal and unchanging when clearly, as we have been hearing, they are anything but. I think I remember My Naughty Little Sister from my own childhood and after your recommendation I have just located them at our local library. We love the illustrations of Shirley Hughes so I am sure these will be a hit at our house.

  15. I used to work at a victorian farm museum and I had made my costume myself, as authentic as I could. the 1896 skirt was a lovely quality wool cloth and had a bound edge on the hem with an internal ‘dust ruffle’ which was supposed to be taken off for cleaning and then restitched on. I wore this skirt for more than a year on a bi/weekly basis and never washed it. I sponged spots and I brushed the bound hem with a stiff clothes brush to remove dried mud and only once in the whole year did I remove the dust ruffle and wash it. I was very suprised at how clean and neat the skirt always looked. The jacket that went with it had huge gathered sleeves that would have made it impossible to wash. I used to spot clean it and also to hang it out on the line to just blow in the wind for a while / even though it had never been washed it always came in smelling fresh and clean. I think we are paranoid about being clean these days.

    1. Oh Jane, this is fascinating! I have certainly heard that wool repels dirt and is able to deal with perspiration quite differently to other fabrics, not building up sweaty smells over time. But I have not heard of a living experiment quite like yours before. So many of the ways you have tended to your dress reflect Laura’s practices. The brushing off of the mud from the skirt is so interesting. Only wool could have the dust brushed off, cotton would stain and rot over time I think. The dust ruffle is an ingenious thing, designed to be taken off, washed and reattached! I imagine an apron might have kept grease etc from the bodice. ‘Paranoid’ is an interesting word to use about contemporary cleanliness because it does allude to the psychological relationship we have with dirt/cleanliness now and the fear we have of being judged by others on our cleanliness. Thank you so much for your thoughts.

  16. Great discussion, Rebecca! My grandparents farmed in Saskatchewan until the mid-60s.I remember my Grandma doing laundry outside on a sunny day in the summer using wash tubs on a bench with a scrub board and putting the clothes through a hand cranked wringer from one tub to another. Using home made lye soap and my Granddad hauling the water by horse from the well. I would have been about four years old. No power no running water! It’s a good thing to remember for the memory itself and as a reminder that water shouldn’t be wasted!

    1. Thank you Wendy, again I am struck by how much change we have witnessed in everyday life practices. Home made lye soap, wringers and hauling water are not ancient history at all, just a little ways back. And yes, thank you for taking us back to the water usage. As you point out the memory of your grandfather hauling water by horse for the laundry reminds you that water is hard won, associated with labour and is precious. Our washing machines obscure observations of water, silently filling and emptying the washing machine during drought or plenty. I wonder if as water becomes a more valuable resource in western countries with climate change if technology will start to be used to reveal and track water use at the site of the appliance so that once again we become aware of what we are actually using?

  17. It is interesting to reflect on how our attitudes and practices have changed. Regular brushing and spot-cleaning, and having garments with collars, cuffs, and hem flounces that are designed to be removed for washing, now seem like things that would increase, rather than decrease, the time and effort spent doing laundry.

    When my mum was a child in the Netherlands after the war, few people had laundry facilities at home. My grandmother’s one luxury was to have all the family’s laundry – with the exception of handknits and other delicates – sent away to be washed. Each household was allocated a number, and a little machine-embroidered label would be stitched onto each article so it wouldn’t get lost. I recall using handkerchiefs that had somehow survived all the intervening years and still had those tiny numbered labels in the corners. A very different story when the family moved to rural Australia, and had to contend with coppers, washboards, wringers, and sagging rope clotheslines!

    Nowdays, Mum has had a front-load washing machine – and has done for as long as I can remember, well before they became popular. The first one she used belonged to a family she worked for during a trip to Ireland, and apparently had square disks that were inserted into a slot in the front to select the different wash programs. Mum maintains that front-loaders are far gentler on clothes that top-loaders, but still won’t entrust many of her “good” garments to the machine. My laundry practices are very much influenced by hers: I handwash almost all my blouses, skirts, dresses, slacks, and knits, regardless of origin or composition (although I do tend to think of my hand-made items as more fragile). I don’t wear my “good” clothes around the house, and outer garments are usually worn multiple times before washing. Washing can be hard on clothes, and I want my nice things to last for as long as possible.

    1. Dear Naomi, thank you so much. You covered so much in this comment, historical laundry practices, family practices and the everyday rules you have that govern how different garments are laundered. I love it. It was like reading a wee domestic biography. I don’t know about you but I am fascinated by the interplay of history, culture and family in creation of your everyday laundry. This combination of factors produces many of our daily practices I guess. Thank you!

  18. Thanks for all this interesting discussion Rebecca! I loved reading Laura Ingels Wilder books the the Class 3 kids in my class – they loved them – all that nitty-gritty detail about such a different style of life is fascinating.

    As a child we had an agitating washing machine with a wringer next to tubs so that Mum used to wring the clothes out of the soapy water into a tub of clean rinsing water, swish them about a lot and return them to a freshly-filled machine for the final agitation rinse – that was until we won a brand new fully-automatic washing machine in 1963 and all our neighbours came to see this new marvel.

    It was fortunate because when I was a young mum dealing with cloth nappies in the mid-70s I knew what to do when we visited an aboriginal community 350 km north-west of Alice Springs. After soaking the nappies for up to a week, I put them in an oval metal tub with handles at each end, covered them with water and shaved in Velvet soap and heated it over an open fire. Then I would have to use a stick to haul them out of the boiling water, hang them in the air to get cool enough to handle, wring them out by hand, put them on a board to keep them out of the dirt and haul water for rinsing. After rinsing twice,I hung them on the barbed wire fence. The aboriginal women probably thought I was crazy – their kids went around naked and it was not problem.

    A few months after that, we lived in a shearers quarters in the NSW tablelands. I washed only once a week because I had to light a fire under the copper into which I shaved Velvet soap. After agitating them with a stick, I hauled them through a wringer into the troughs there – two cold rinses. Then onto the line to dry.

    Such were the joys of living as ‘dropped out’ hippies on washing day! It was very satisfying, though, and I used to sleep well!

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