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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How Our Founding Fathers Laundry Was Washed

Independence Day is just around the corner. When things start getting noisy with fireworks going off late into the evening and the grocery stores are offering specials on hot dogs and watermelons and corn on the cob, my thoughts turn towards our nations Founding Fathers.

They left us a nation free from the ties of Europe. They left us a government ruled by people and for the people-not for the royalty.  One thing they did not leave us with was modern appliances. Those came later.
In the Colonial era, laundry was not the simple matter of pouring out some detergent and pressing a button or turning a know. Not even close.
First You Would Need To Do The Mending (Flickr/CC)

Imagine yourself doing a "load" of laundry back in those days. Before beginning to wash clothes, first it was crucial to check for wear or damage that needed mending. Cloth was hard top come by and clothes were mended until they could not be mended anymore. Even then the scraps would be saved for use in quilts or as rags. Any repairs needed would happen before you started the washing process. One more thing, any sewing you were doing to mend those clothes was being done by hand.

Now that you have a pile of items that need a few stitches each, it would be a good idea to start soaking your clothes while you did your mending. Hopefully by soaking the cloth the dirt would start to loosen a bit making your job a little easier when you moved on to the next step. At this point you might try a few homespun stain treatments on any particularly bad spots. Regardless, you probably want to leave the clothes soaking overnight.

Day 2. Your clothes have been soaking overnight. Time to get some water boiling, make that a lot of water. Hopefully you have a good source of abundant water nearby or you may have some hauling to do. You want to get the water as hot as you can get it while still being able to reach into it. Put some lye soap on the clothes, turn them inside out and put them into the scalding water.

Pull out the first item and find a rock or other hard smooth surface you can rub the laundry against-washboard won't be invented until the 1800's. Now you can start scrubbing...and scrubbing....and scrubbing. Eventually you will feel like the laundry item you are working on can't get any cleaner. Wring that piece out and set aside and start working on the next piece.

When you are done scrubbing the clothes you still have a ways to go. Now you would want to get a tank of water going to a rolling boil. You would then boil the clothes for a little while to kill off any "critters" that might have gotten themselves into the piece. Use a laundry paddle to fish out you items and then you can plunge them into another vat of cold water for final rinsing.

Finally your colored items would be ready to dry. You might use a clothesline, or you might just lay the clothes out on top of some tall grass,  or you place them near the fire in the hearth to help speed the drying process. The white items required a little MORE effort.

As you might imagine, this method of clothes washing left a bit to be desired when it came to the white items. Generally speaking they would come out the wash dingy and yellowed. Chlorine bleach had not yet been invented so other methods were used to whiten fabrics. Blocks of indigo or Prussian blue were added to the water making it a sky blue color. Yellowed whites that soaked in the "bluing" solution would pick up that blue color and it countered the yellowing making clothes appear whiter. After the "bluing" clothes could be rinsed and dried like the other items in the wash.

Clothes of that era were obviously not permanent press, and there was no dryer being used to ease the wrinkle. The net step, then would be ironing of the clothes. Irons of the era looked a lot like irons today. Except they had no power cord or steam features. Instead, you would have a literal piece of iron with a handle that would be heated on the stove top, or in more primitive situations in pan over an open fire. A well stocked home would have two irons so that they could alternate with one heating while the other was pressing the laundry.

Once the ironing was completed the clothes could then be folded for storage until used. But you still weren't done with your laundry chores. Soap was homemade and periodically you will be looking at making a new batch, luckily that only happens once or twice a year. Your supplies would also need to be stowed away correctly. You would want to make sure your irons were dry and stored in an upright position to prevent rust. Wooden wash tubs also required special care. If you stored them "dry" the wood had a tendency to dry out and split. On the other hand if you stored them with water in them you needed to make sure to empty the water frequently

It wasn't an easy life in the Colonial Era for anyone, much less for the homemaker. Thanks to the automatic washing machine wash day can be any day and a person can be done within a few hours. As you celebrate the freedom our Founding Fathers left us this Fourth of July, pause and remember all the freedom that your washing machine offers as well. Have a fun and safe holiday weekend!

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