Monday, September 13, 2021

The Great Wash

My dryer is broken. First of all, let me acknowledge that it is a bit unusual to have a proper clothes dryer in Switzerland. Some apartments come equipped with a tumbler, but not a dryer, while most utilize shared facilities. It ought not feel a hardship to suddenly have to contend with line drying my clothing, but I am spoiled, and I'm finding the experience pretty darn frustrating.

W. H. Pyne. “Welsh Peasant Washers.” From The Costume of
Great Britain
.  London: William Miller, 1808.

Thank goodness the weather has been good! Still, we don't get a full day of direct sunlight on our small patio, and I've had to be pretty creative in claiming new drying spots in windows and stairwells. I have not often had to think of such matters, but as my days have become regulated by shifting and turning items about, trying to help them dry faster, while watching the weather carefully for stray showers, I have inevitably dwelled on how mundane such thoughts and considerations were to Regency women. One of the most tedious and arduous of all household tasks at the time was doing the laundry, and even the most exalted had to have care and concern for the time and manpower involved. 

Jane Austen only really hints at the labor intensity of doing the laundry once in her novels, by my reckoning, in the fragment The Watsons, which I reread for the first time in about a decade this weekend. A recollection that doing the wash was mentioned inspired me. I've always far preferred Sanditon as a fragment and historically found The Watsons almost unbearably depressing. I enjoyed it much more this reading. Maybe the world is more depressing now, so it suits my mood better, or maybe ten years of intense Austen study has allowed me to properly understand the text. I certainly am more familiar with change, upheaval, and loss than I was when last I read it. Nevertheless, or perhaps as a result, the story doesn't seem so hopeless as it used to. I want to read it again and further crystallise my thoughts, so look forward to a proper post on the text.

For my purpose here today, there is just one line I'd like to examine. For those of you unfamiliar with the story (you can read it here), Emma Watson, our heroine, had just returned to her family home after years of privilege and comfort as the ward of her aunt and uncle. When the latter died, the former remarried a fortune hunter, who quickly dismisses Emma back to an already financially strained family. Elizabeth is her eldest sister and manages their meager household. Very early in the story she says to Emma, "Since you have been at home, I have been so busy with my poor father and our great wash that I have had no leisure to tell you anything ...." The modern reader may wonder why Elizabeth would have scheduled the wash for when her sister, unseen for eight years, is finally returning home, but she may have had very little choice. Obviously, the weather was a factor. Especially considering the wet climate in England, housekeepers had to be opportunistic about utilising fair weather. Not only does the sun whiten linens, it also prevented the necessity of having to find a place to dry everything inside the house, further discommoding everyone (particularly, one presumes, the servants). But there was more to it then taking advantage of limited sunshine. Most households would hire washerwomen in advance to come in and manage the process. These were experts in their field, with knowledge of how much soap and chemicals were required on which fabrics, and possessed of the strength to churn, lift, and wring heavy, soaking wet linen and wool. The task was formidable, and the lye soap utilised was disastrous to your hands, so to be avoided at all cost by any woman with pretensions to gentility. 

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Laundress, 1761.
Oil on canvas. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The wash would take at least two whole days to complete. It would begin the day before the
washerwomen would arrive, when a servant would be set to guard and tend the fire under the "copper," preparing it for use when the washerwomen arrived. There was then an order of operations to follow regarding what you washed first. A variety of cleansers were used, including urine on some of the more heavily soiled items, and blue dyes to counteract yellowing fabrics. Huge amounts of water were required for boiling and rinsing. It was a project to consume an entire household. Poor Emma must have felt quite out of place and useless to return home to such occupation and disorder. 

Of course, this just refers to table linens, bed clothes, undergarments, and corse garments. Fine fabrics and gowns required specialised care. A valuable gown would be disassembled for washing, all buttons removed, and reassembled with an eye to fixing and stretching that may have occurred to the fabric. All of this labor involved in the simple maintenance of clothing heavily reinforced class divides. It was simply impossible to maintain cleanliness without a small army of assistants. 

There are several excellent descriptions online of all that was entailed in doing the laundry. You'll find links to a few of my favorite below. I just want to reflect on how fortunate we are to have such an easy time with laundry, even as it still consumes a ton of my time and seems a never ending task (and that's when the dryer works). I am always so grateful to climb into a bed made with fresh sheets. That is a luxury that has never been lost on me. But now I will learn to be grateful for towels that are soft and fluffy instead of hard and crunchy. Indeed, I might be on the verge of down and breaking resorting to fabric softener for the first time in decades. Maybe the repair shop will call soon, and it won't have to come to that. Here's hoping!

18th Century Life: Ways to Wash your Linens

Jane Austen's World: Everyday Chores of Laundry and Scullery Maids, and Washerwomen

Pen and Pensions: The Georgian Washing Day

1 comment:

  1. We really take our modern gadgetry for granted.
    I know people joke about the Dashwoods having to suffer the supreme poverty of only two servants, but as you said, everything took so much more work and time before machines. I throw my clothes into the washing machine and ignore them. I throw ingredients into the KitchenAid and ignore it, while I flick on the electric kettle and whip out the vacuum cleaner. Each of those tasks would have taken a couple of people a lot of time without the tech we don't even think about.
    Great post!