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Blue Monday: Wash Day

Figure 1: A 1900 woman holds a vacuum wash stick, used to stir clothes while they boiled. Lena Glaze

Figure 1: A 1900 woman holds a vacuum wash stick, used to stir clothes while they boiled.

August 12, 2013

Americans often dread “Blue Monday,” the start of weekday car commutes, irritating bosses, and long hours in front of a computer. Housewives in 1900 would also have dreaded “Blue Monday,” but for a different reason: in many household calendars, Monday was wash day.

“I wish it could be burnt into the consciousness of every man and every woman that washing under average farm conditions is a man’s work, not a woman’s, measured by expenditure of strength,” wrote one farm wife in the early 1900s. [1] In an era without Shout stain remover or Whirlpool washing machines, laundry was an all-day affair; even the advent of simple washing machines and clothes wringers in the late 1800s did not greatly lessen the workload for the average Iowa farm wife in 1900.

Preparations for wash-day often began the night before: if clothes were especially dirty, the housewife would soak them overnight in slightly sudsy water. On the morning of wash-day, the housewife had better check the weather! Once breakfast was served, the housewife would gather her washing-day utensils: 2 or 3 tubs, a kettle, a stirring stick, soap, a washing rack, and more. She’d sort the clothes into loads based on color, dirtiness, and fabric delicacy. The least dirty whites came first. The process was as follows:

  • If the clothes were soaked overnight, drain the sudsy water from the clothes.
  • Hot, sudsy water was poured over the soaked clothes, and each item carefully washed. One domestic writer urged women to wash both sides of every garment. Delicate items were hand washed, and tougher ones were washed with a washboard.
  • Items were placed into a kettle on the stove and covered with water. The laundress would boil the clothes vigorously, stirring them often, for at least thirty minutes.
  • Once boiled, items were moved quickly to the rinsing tubs. Each item was rinsed twice, and wrung out thoroughly in between rinses – one domestic writer warned women that if they didn’t thoroughly wring out garments after rinsing, the clothes would turn yellow or remain soapy. [2]
  • The housewife would shake out the clothes, and take them to the line to dry until damp enough for ironing.
  • The entire process was repeated with each load of clothes.

This repeated process meant that the housewife spent most of the day in a hot room, bending over tubs of clothes or carrying heavy baskets to the clothesline.

Figure 2: A washing stand, a washboard, and a stirring stick.

Figure 2: A washing stand, a washboard, and a stirring stick.

The caustic homemade soaps often made the housewife’s hands sore and red. In addition, there were different washing procedures for different fabrics – some fabrics had to be washed in lukewarm water, others in hot; some had to be rinsed in starch, and others in bluing. Stains were removed manually or with various kinds of soap. In addition, the housewife often had to prepare 3 meals; even on wash-day, families had to be fed.

The consumer technologies of the late 1800s and early 1900s did not ease wash-day much. In 1895 the Montgomery Ward catalog listed 5 washing machines. They all had to be hand-cranked, however, and housewives often still had to boil water, soap the clothes, and rinse the clothes. In addition, these machines ranged from $2.75 to $35.00, while basic washboards only cost $.06. In sum, machines didn’t save housewives significant labor, and they were a far larger investment than a washboard.

Women hated wash-day so much that even low-income women would hire a laundress or send out some of their laundry: “A Russell Sage Foundation Study published that year (1909) found that 60 percent of the 391 New York City workingmen’s families spent at least some money on laundry service”. [3] In the Midwest, cheese and dairy companies often created laundry cooperatives, with all of the cooperating families sending their clothes to be washed in the cheese factory’s facilities. Wisconsin farm wife and advice columnist Nellie Jones urged a young woman to push for a laundry cooperative in her local cheese factory. [4]

The next time anyone picks up a bottle of Shout to spray a stain, remember the housewives and laundresses of 1900 and their hard labor. Their lives may look simpler from today’s vantage point, but they certainly weren’t any easier.

Guest post by Historical Interpreter Intern Lena Glaze

                [1] Jeanne Hunnicutt Delgado, “Nellie Kedzie Jones’s Advice to Farm Women: Letters from Wisconsin, 1912-1916,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 57, No. 1 (Autumn, 1973), 17.

                [2] Adamson, Helen Lyon.  Grandmother’s Household Hints:  As Good Today as Yesterday.  (Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Co., 1963), 117.

                [3] Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework, (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co., 2000), 113.

                [4] Jeanne Hunnicutt Delgado, “Nellie Kedzie Jones’s Advice to Farm Women,” 14.

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