Ask any child “What day is wash day” Most will reply “Sunday” “Saturday” or “Wednesday” or any day of the week which springs to mind.
Ask older adults and they will reply forcefully “Monday” It this marked difference in answer a reflection of the lack of impact washday has on the modern child, compared with the memories of carrying heavy buckets of water, steamy kitchens, smell of soap suds, washing drying on the rack in front of the fire on a wet day, the cold remains of Sunday dinner served up on Monday, the heavy job of possing or turning the mangle handle, for men and women of the older generation.
If we consider the very slow improvements in washing methods during the centuries preceding ours, which were followed by rapid advances in washing technology, dating from the 1950’s, we may begin to understand.
The simplest procedure involved women taking their laundry down to the nearest source of water, often the village stream, and without the use of soap or any other cleansing agent, simply pounding it clean.
The washing bat used for beating the linen was known as a beetle or battledore. If they were washing near a well they would beat their washing with the beetle against a wooden washing block.
In Scotland, women often washed their linen by trampling on it with bare feet in wooden tubs filled with cold water, the effect of which was not only to clean their laundry, but “swelled them (their legs) to a wonderful size and horrid black and blue colour.
After washing had been beetled or trampled it was wrung out and laid on the grass or a convenient hedge to dry.
The primitive washing method of beetling had disappeared from most places in England by the late 18th century, though it did not stop completely in the more remote parts of Britain until after the 1st World War.
A second laundry method consisted of soaking the washing in a cleansing or bleaching agent (white cotton or linen only)
Stale urine, which contains ammonia, was commonly used for this purpose. The urinewas know by different names, depending on locality, in Lancashire it was known as “ lant” and was collected in “lant pots” or “lant troughs” in Yorkshire it was known as “weetin” or “old waish”
Lancashire it was known as “lant” and was collected in “lant pots” or “lant troughs” in Yorkshire it was known as “weetin” or “old wash day”
Many poor people used it for washing themselves as well, apparently with excellent results.
The use of urine continued in some areas to nearly the end of the 19th century.
Because it was free and easy to store, it was used in town and country areas alike.
In some of the coal mining areas of the north of England urine was collected in a barrel common to a street or a group of houses and shared out on washdays.
Animal dung could be used in a similar way, though it had more value as fertiliser or even fuel.
The use of this material as a cleansing agent vanished by the early 19th century.
The great benefit and boon to women was the growing use of soap, often used in combination with lye.
Although there was a significant cost implication, the use of it became widespread.
Soap could be made at home; the following is one recipe,
6 ½ lbs rendered fat (this could be mutton fat)
1 lb caustic soda (sodium hydroxide)
3 pints of water
Dissolve the caustic soda in the water, melt the rendered fat slowly into the soda and stir with an iron spoon until all is mixed
Line a wooden box with damp calico, pour in the mixture ,cover and put in a damp place until next day, then cut the bars and leave one month before using.
How are you off for soap?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Vansittart, raised the soap tax in 1814.
Even as early as the 17th century the London soap boilers were already serving a great part of the Kingdom.
By 1814 soap was being made in St Helen’s Lancashire, using cheap mass produced alkali made from salt, and once manufacturers started to experiment with the new vegetable oils from abroad, the production of soap was greatly improved.
Soap was taxed until 1853, although this did not seem to deter women from buying it.
Of course women who lived in the industrialised cities did not burn wood but coal, and therefore could not make lye, hence the success of the soap makes in London and all other parts of the country.
The most famous soap maker was William Hesketh Lever, who over a hundred years ago built a factory on a lonely, swampy area of Cheshire and called it Port Sunlight.
Up until this time household soap has been produced and sold in long extruded bars, which the grocer sliced on his counter to a weight required by his customers.
“Lever” was the first man to hit on the marvellous idea of cutting the bars into tablets, wrapping each one separately and colourfully and selling them under a brand name.
In the early days of his interest soap Lever had sold, purchased from other manufacturers but brand as “Sunlight Soap”.
He then started making his own soap in a leased factory in Warrington, it was on these premises he perfected the soap formula which was to be used for laundry soap well into the 20th century.
Once his new factory was built he continued to make household soap, using a mix made up from coconut or palm kernel oil, cotton seed oil, resin and tallow.
Dolly Pegs and Posser
Washing with soap, unlike any of the preceding laundry methods required hot water.
The earliest “ coppers” made from copper or iron were to be found in the upper class homes, where the wash house became an essential addition to the household.
Coppers were used for heating water, ie filling the wooden wash tubs with hot water and for boiling the white linen after it had been subjected to soaking in the wooden tubs, been soaped, beaten with a dolly or posser and scrubbed, either by hand or on a ridged washing board.
One of the economic benefits of the copper was that once the water was boiling, it took very little fuel to keep it boiling, and generally, so long as the fire drew well anything, such as cinders to every kind of refuse, could be burned.
Coppers were not used just for washday, as the average capacity was up to 20 gallons, many people found useful for heating the bath water, they were also ideal for brewing or boiling large puddings.
The introduction of the copper into the homes of the labouring classes was strongly advocated by the reformers of the 19th century.
However, despite their enthusiasm, coppers were only adopted slowly in these homes.
Families without coppers simply heated water in their largest available receptacle, over the kitchen fire.
As this receptacle was likely to be the biggest cooking pot, it meant no food could be cooked whilst washing was in progress.
Their washing was often blackened by falling soot from the kitchen chimney or the water boiled over.
Because of these disadvantages many women washed outside on fine days, building a fire on a fireplace made loose fitting bricks and suspending the water vessel above it.
Wash houses were not as wide spread as we may imagine.
The Medical Officer of Health for Essex between 1889 and 1919 found that “very few cottages have detached wash house with a copper”.
The importance of many skilled workers is in evidence in the wash house, not least the contribution of the cooper.
When most of us consider casks and barrels, we associate them with wine and beer.
There were three main classes of coopering, wet, dry, and white, wet coopering considered to need the most skill, was as the term suggests, used for vessels which were intended to hold liquids, ie beer and spirits and of course washing.
Oil, tar, and pitch were also stored and transported in casks made by wet coopers, though not to such a high quality as those for beer etc.
Dry coopering differed according to the commodity the vessel was expected to hold herrings.
Their casks were made to hold a large variety of goods, soap, butter, syrup, and pickles.
Straight sided vessels were made by white coopers.
White coopers are the oldest branch of the three, buckets being the earliest evidence of this skill.
Tubs made by them were used in many industrial processes ie dyeing, brewing, distilling, mining, metal work and glass making.
Tubs were in great demand by laundries and in the home. Pails for milking, churns for butter making and tubs for cheese production were all made by skilled craftsmen.
This long tradition is still maintained by Theakstons the brewers today in Yorkshire.
As the 19th century progressed, much of the wooden washing apparatus was superseded by the use of the galvanised metal equipment that you see today, for instance the large wooden washing tubs ,half tubs and pails ,all made by coopers, were copied into metal.
The overall dimensions of the metal wash tubs, seems to have remained unchanged from the wooden ones.
Metal wash tubs, which so many people used or remember in use, in not come into common usage until the end of the 19th century and continued to be manufactured until at least the 1940’s.
The invention of the upright, compact mangles for squeezing out excess water and smoothing the washing, making it easier to iron, were a great improvement on any earlier methods, such as ringing by hand, or winding the washing very tightly rounder a roller, much like a long rolling pin, and then pressing out the water by rolling it on something flat.
Mangles were produced in their thousands by the iron founders, largely around Keighley in Yorkshire and Accrington in Lancashire, where a vast mangle manufacturing industry grew up.
H Bushell and Sons York were manufacturing from at least 1872 up to about 1938, and maybe ever later.
After all the effort of carrying water, scrubbing, peggying, boiling and rinsing ,the housewife still had not finished her labours.
The last steps before the final mangling of the white washing involved the addition of the “dolly blue” to the last rinse.
The most famous maker of Dolly Blue was Colmans and in 1852 they were advertising “Indigo Blue for Laundries” though the blue colour in dolly blue was available from several different vegetables and mineral sources.
Indigo blue was the first colouring used, being obtained from either Indigofera plants or Isatis tincture (wood), eventually the chemical structure was discovered and the chemical manufacture of the blue began around the late 1890’s.
Indigo blue mixed with the “finest starch” water added the whole was then milled to a dark thick blue paste.
The paste was then divided into cakes, oblongs, cylinders or rolled into balls.
You may ask why all this effort and industry was needed, the simple answer is that the addition of the dolly blue to the final rinse of the white washing enhanced the whiteness, though if to much were used the “whites became blue” ! .
The laundress had not necessarily finished then, she would now need to starch some of the white cotton garments and household linen, ie detached collars, shirts, petticoats, aprons, tablecloths, and pillowcases, the list is endless.
Colmans also made this vital washing aid, its principal purpose was to stiffen the cloth when it was ironed, as unstarched cotton can be very limp, making it looks fresh and attractive.
The other advantage of starching was that the resulting stiff, smooth finish on the cloth helped to make the fibres resistant to dirt.
This proved a boon when the next washday came around.
Wheat starch is believed to be the oldest type of starch and is mentioned in Pliny’s (23-79 AD) “Natural History”.
The early 19th century saw a great scarcity of wheat and its use in starch manufacture was prohibited.
It is possible to make starch from many different plants ie arrowroot, sago, dahlia tuber, yams, manioc root and even horse chestnut, but it was rice which became the new source of starch.
Rice starch became available in the 1840’s manufactured by Colman, and proved to be a great improvement on the wheat and maize starch which had been used in the past.
Estimated starch consumption in 1830 was 2500 tons; this figure had reached 25,000 tons by 1850.
It can be seen that during the 19th century a huge industry grew up on the back of washday and it is interesting to note that the two best known manufactures of this period, Lever Brothers and Colman, are still in business today.
So Why was Monday always Washday?
There have been several theories promulgated, women had more energy after a good Sunday lunch and a chore free day, it took all week to complete the laundry cycle, including the ironing.
Nevertheless, which ever day it was done, washing once a week, for the poor particularlywas a necessity, as most only had one change of clothes.
The weekly wash was certainly the norm by the end of the 19th century.
Wash on Monday, all week to dry.
Wash on Tuesday, not too much awry.
Wash on Wednesday, not too much to blame.
Wash on Thursday, wash for the very shame
Wash on Friday, wash from direst need.
Wash on Saturday, dirty slut indeed.
One of the most striking features of washday was that most women detested it; their families loathed it too because of the upheaval it caused in the household.
The mid 19th century farm servant girls in the Yorkshire Wolds who rose at 1.00am and washed until tea time were not untypical.
Washing and drying was followed by the lengthy process of ironing, meaning in effect that laundry took about three days to complete.
The long hours and hard work involved were quite often described in women’s diaries and certainly some of the well known rhymes and songs of the period give that impression.
“T was on a Monday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so sweet and charming
In a very high degree
Yes! She was neat and willing O
Picking up her linen clothes
And driving away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.
During the rest of the week from Tuesday to Sunday, she is a soaping, hanging, a rolling down ironing and finally a wearing
All references to Port Sunlight Soap and Colman are by the kind permission of the Unilever Historical Archives, copyright holders.