As I noted in a recent posting, one of the myths that goes the rounds is that everyone in the past was always dirty. It isn’t true. The wealthy weren’t, the poor almost certainly were. As I pointed out there, the costs associated with keeping yourself clean were considerable, both in money and time. In a society in which cleanliness and class mirrored each other, keeping not just your body but your clothing and linens clean was straightforward for the rich, a matter of continual care and concern for the middling sort, and probably a hopeless dream for most of the poor.
Don’t misunderstand me. No one in the eighteenth century could hope to match current personal hygiene standards. The means to do so were not available, not would it have been considered necessary. But within what was possible, most people above the very lowest income levels did what they could, if only as a matter of personal comfort. You might not have been able to escape the occasional flea or louse, however rich you were, but you certainly wouldn’t act in ways that would encourage them.
So, if you were as clean personally as you could afford, what else was needed? The answer, of course, was clean underclothes and clean bed-linens. The more often and better these were washed, the cleaner you would stay. Here again, class and wealth were the great dividing lines. As I hope to show, washing the clothes was such a laborious and time-consuming activity, it was done far less often than weekly. No problem for the rich, who could afford closets full of extra sheets and underclothes to allow frequent changes between washing days. A bit more of a problem for the middling sort, though surmountable, and a hopeless task for the poor.
Keeping Your Linens Fresh
Nowadays, washing clothes and bedlinen is a fairly simple chore. No more than putting the clothes in a washing machine, then transferring them to a dryer and finally ironing and putting away. Since none of these existed in the 18th century—with the exception of the earliest attempts at washing machines in the late 1790s and after—washing the clothes demanded much more effort and elbow-grease.
Look through many probate inventories of prosperous people of the time and you will be struck at once by the large number of bed-sheets and similar items listed. Why did they need so many? The answer is simple. Washing days were such a major undertaking that they were arranged only on an infrequent, if regular, basis.
If we turn again to Mary Hardy as an example of a modestly prosperous, middle class wife of the time, we can see she arranged for washing days on a four-weekly cycle. This might sometimes stretch out to six weeks if some event like illness disrupted the pattern.
Such a cycle certainly did not mean you would only change your underclothes (personal linens) or bedsheets (household linens) every four weeks. You had all those extra bed-sheets and the like so you could let the dirty ones pile up until the next washing day came around. Then there would be a massive ‘wash’ and the cycle would begin again.
Reflect for a moment on that word we still use today: linens. Cotton was not that common, or affordable, until the later years of the 18th century. Mostly people had worn linen as shirts or shifts, as well as used it for bedclothes, table cloths, handkerchiefs and the like. Linen is hardwearing, but not the easiest of materials to handle when being washed. It would be heavy and prone to excessive creasing. Without modern detergents, getting the dirt out was no easy matter either.
All the washing and rinsing water needed had to be drawn from a well, pumped up from underground by hand (or donkey) or fetched from a nearby pond or stream. It had to be heated and replenished regularly as it became too dirty for further use.
The first filling and heating of the great pan, known as a copper, used for the washing itself would take place overnight. Some of the wood would be made into a bonfire and the copper set on it, filled with water and gradually heated. Some poor servant might even have to sit up all night to tend the fire!
It was up to the laundresses, hired for the purpose, to carry out the heavy work of stirring and agitating the clothes in the hot water, using long, wooden implement like oars called ‘washing bats’. They were also responsible for judging what cleaning agents to use and how much of each. No nicely scented soap, of course. Only a coarse kind of soap containing ’lye’—caustic soda or sodium hydroxide—made from ashes. This is a powerful alkali which dissolves grease, but is far from pleasant on human skin.
While the washerwomen were doing the heavy, skilled work, other household servants assisted them by fetching and carrying water, plus more and more wood to keeps the fires going. Once the women in charge judged the items had been washed sufficiently, they used the ‘washing bats’ to heave loads of wet, heavy cloth out of the hot water and into other pans set there for rinsing. There the household servants would be pressed into work again, stirring to release the remaining dirt and the residue of lye-soap, replacing the rinsing water as needed, then heaving the cloth out for the excess water to be removed.
Even this was no easy job. There were a few machines to squeeze the clothes, but few save the greatest households would possess them. Some used rollers, like primitive mangles, to squeeze out the water. . Generally, however, removing excess water would be a matter of wringing the cloth by hand. Longer pieces, like sheets, could be taken by two servants and twisted between them.
Making the Wash Whiter
Over time, linens have a tendency to turn yellowish. If you wanted your linens to look whiter, you had to resort to a number of alternative ways of bleaching them. Urine was used by some—hmm! Others resorted to ‘blueing’ the clothes. That involved using a form of indigo, powdered or in a block, to give the clothes a slight blue tinge that counteracted the yellowing. I can recall people still using Reckitt’s Washing Blue in the 1950s.
The cheapest way was to utilise the bleaching power of sunlight—what causes coloured curtains and fabric placed near windows to ‘fade’ over time. The cloth would be either laid over wooden frames or on the grass to bleach in the sun. Grass was easier and chemicals from its leaves helped the bleaching process a little. Of course, finding enough strong sunlight for long enough in our northern climes was a problem, but setting cloth to bleach in the sun was still common.
Many years ago, I lived in a small village in Scotland. A field in the centre of the village, used today as a park and play area, was still known as ‘The Bleachfield’, though I expect few of the villagers knew what that referred to. In America, wooden open stands around a playing field or football pitch are called ‘bleachers’. At Felbrigg Hall (NT) near Cromer, there is an 18th-century Dutch painting giving an imaginary bird’s eye view of long strips of cloth laid out to bleach in the sun. It’s called “A Bleaching Ground near Haarlem”.
Drying and All the Rest
Drying clothes must have been a nightmare in Britain’s damp climate! Clothes-lines would be set up, or clothes and sheets hung out on wooden frames. A convenient hedge or some bushes would also be pressed into service. If all else failed—as must often have been the case in winter—all that cloth had to be hung inside somewhere, doubtless in the out-houses and the servants’ working areas.
Ironing was also a problem, since the few irons available were large, clumsy objects and had to be heated by charcoal or putting metal bars in a fire, then fitting it into a place left open above the actual ‘sole plate’ of the iron. Large items like sheets could be pressed flat by rollers running over a wooden base and weighted down by a large box containing heavy stones. Others used machines like printing presses, with the cloth put between two flat, wooden plates, which could be tightened with a wooden screw. However, such clumsy machinery needed a good deal of space to house it, so once again it would be the preserve of the richest families. Smaller items might be pressed by hand using ‘mangle boards’: short wooden planks, fitted with a handle at one end, that could be placed on the cloth and pressed down hard.
I suspect most households simply folded items carefully and piled them up in the cupboards and drawers of a piece of furniture called a ‘clothes press’. During this storage, the weight of the upper items would flatten the lower ones to some extent.
The Feel of Clean Sheets
Expending so much time, energy and expense on washing household and personal linens must argue that our Georgian ancestors enjoyed the feel of clean, fresh underclothes and bed linen as much as we do today. Without labour-saving devices, it took considerably longer to do the regular wash. It required hiring extra servants in the form of laundresses. It also demanded the purchase of large numbers of sheets and the like to be able to enjoy that freshly washed feel until washing day came around again.
I will leave you with this ‘receipt’ from Katherine Wyndham’s “Booke of Cookery & Housekeeping” of 1707 for how to manage washing day. If you followed this approach, washing would take two days at least. ‘Bucking’ was used only for the most heavily soiled items and involved prolonged soaking in a strong lye and urine solution. I have left the original spelling. If you say it aloud, what she means should be clear enough.
The first day wash ye tabling & napkins in small Lye, yn at night lay them in a lucke warm buck till morning, let it run leasurely out, & fling it away, the next day Bucke it, & wash ym out with Lye, yn wash ym in ye suds after yr fine Linnen,
wash your Kitchin Linnen, & Servants Table cloths, & in Lye lay ym at the botom of your course sheets, yn lay your course sheets in, & fine on ye Top dry, then, the first night lay on a luke warm bucke, let it run leasurly out all night, fling ye Lye away, & Bucke ym, & wash ym out in Lye, yn with suds as above,
all servants shirts, shifts, & Aporns should be bucked with the sheets, or Table Linnen,
what Linnen are Stained, rub ye places with salt & soap, & wash it out in small lye, before you put ym in ye Bucking Tub, ye must lye a night in soake in lye before you wash ym out,
- The Diary of Mary Hardy 1773–1809, Margaret Bird (ed.), Burnham Press, 2013. ↩
- A bucking-tub was a large wooden tub, raised on a frame, with a plug-hole to allow the water to run out into a bucket underneath. Hot water would be poured in through a cloth containing bleaching agents like lye, fresh ashes or urine (or all three). Then the water would be passed through the tub full of laundry again and again, being continually re-heated and poured back in. ↩
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