Sunday, October 24, 2010

When Home was... Getting the Washing done in the 1800s

What’s the chore you least enjoy? For me it would have to be the ironing. It was a rainy, cold Sunday in Sydney today. Perfect weather to get through the stack of ironing that slowly grows in this house week by week. Only I didn’t do it. Instead I just folded the clothes willing the creases to disappear in the wardrobes.

They never do, of course, but it doesn’t stop me from hoping.

So, instead of ironing on this wet day, I cleaned out a desk drawer instead. It was filled with everything from preschool artwork, old airline tickets, brochures I’ve never bothered reading to articles I have cut out of newspapers and magazines over the years.

Reading about ‘domestic drudgery’ is always more interesting than the drudgery itself and it wasn’t long before I came across a fascinating article written by Michele Hanson and published in The Guardian newspaper in 2002.

Titled Dirty Secrets, the article was describing an exhibition held at the Women’s Library in East London during that time. The exhibition was all about doing the laundry during the mid-19th century: ‘Dirty Linen; the history of women and their laundry’.

‘At last, social reformers realised the poor needed help. As part of a push for cleanliness and social order, public baths and wash houses began to be built. It had been decided (largely by middle-class philanthropic women who had the time and energy) that the female poor should be allowed out for a couple of hours to slog away at the laundry. A woman could then bring her washing back home clean and dry, rather than "keep her dwelling-room all day in a state of steam and slop, her children being wet and dirty and her husband driven by sheer necesssity to the beer-shop".

In 1847, the Goulston Square Public Wash House was opened for the poor of London's East End - the building that now houses the Women's Library. It's a strangely gloomy place: in one room you look up a very long way to a skylight, like a prisoner in a pit. But at least I wasn't doing the laundry.

In its day, it provided women with soap, warm water, a wringer, a tub, and a wooden dolly for pounding their washing - luxury compared to the grisly conditions at home - but the household wash could still take hours of backbreaking work. The wash house also provided 94 private baths, but they were mainly used by men. It wasn't respectable for women to go to public baths - anyway they didn't have time to spend on themselves, baths cost money, and men came first. Still, let's not quibble. It was a step in the right direction.

And if it wasn't bad enough doing your own washing, the exhibition also illustrates the plight of laundresses - who had to do everyone else's. They worked in commercial steam laundries, young girls and married women working 14-hour shifts in hot and cramped conditions, who frequently burned themselves on the irons, died of carbon monoxide poisoning or even fell through the rotting floors. For all this, they were part-paid in beer. What a life.’

But it’s encouraging to read that at least the Russian laundresses got their own back; ‘"Laundresses had a reputation for being tough and drunken," says [Gail] Cameron [exhibition curator], and who can blame them? They were perhaps at their toughest in Russia, where, disgusted by their working conditions, and having to wash the aristocracy's knickers to boot, they started the February 1917 revolution.’

Yes, reading about doing the laundry is definitely more interesting and educational than pulling out my dusty ironing board.

To read the article in full, click here.
For more information about The Women’s Library, click
Images ©
Culture 24


Anonymous said...

Germaine - thanks for another insightful and entertaining article. As a friend of mine said: 'I'm really good at putting clothes into the machine and turning it on. It's the drying, folding, ironing and putting away I'm not so good at.' I'm the same. But moaning about a bit of appliance-assisted washing seems churlish compared to what these women did - or even what our own grandmothers had to do. Without even mentioning nappies... Nice to be taken back to the East End of London again as well! My favourite notion though is that the men were forced to find refuge at the 'beer-shop' from all that wet laundry at home. The poor buggers.... - Jan X

Germaine Leece said...

Thanks Jan and yes, those poor men married to those washerwomen! Also in that article was a paragraph I didn't quote about the middle classes starting to worry about diseases such as typhoid and cholera being sewn into clothes made and mended for them by the lower class. Another reason for those wash houses being built. I'd like to visit the Women's Library now. Sounds like a very interesting place...


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