Tuesday, 19 July 2016

9 October 1880 - 'How to Wash and Iron' by Ruth Lamb - Part One

"For it's thump, thump; scold, scold; wash, wash away;
There's not a bit of pleasure upon a washing day."

Many a time, in my childish days, have I heard the "Washing Day" verses of which the above two lines form the chorus. The verses themselves have escaped my memory, but I know they were a vivid description of the domestic misery and discomfort which accompanied washing day. There were the scolding wife, the truant husband, crying and neglected children, meals ill prepared, or not prepared at all; the sloppy kitchen, deserted by the cat; and the favourite dog kicked out of doors, and not daring to show his honest muzzle until his instinct told him that the chief business of the day was over.

A certain amount of discomfort is almost inseparable from washing day in a cottage home, and where there are few conveniences; but the mother who directs, and the girls who help, may very materially lessen this if they go about the work in a neat and orderly fashion.

Order is like a fairy helper, and has been represented as such in many a juvenile story. It not only reduces discomfort to the minimum, but actually lightens labour.

In arranging my chapters on washing, I will first take cottage work, where space is small and mechanical appliances are few. I will then tell something about the modern improvements, and the more expensive machinery of various kinds which are used in laundry work on a large scale, and which equally save time and diminish labour. 

The materials required for simple laundry work are wooden tubs or earthen pancheons - or both if possible - wicker clothes baskets, pegs, lines, props; a wooden clothes-horse, or "maiden," as some call it; a thin calico bag, to boil clothes in; a long, smooth stick, to turn them in the copper; blue-bag; soap of two kinds, pale yellow and white curd; some soda, starch and blue. Soda softens water, and is valuable for dissolving the grease and cleansing very dirty articles; but it should not be used in water intended for flannels, or it will turn them yellow, and it would also spoil most prints. Many washing powders are advertised, but I cannot recommend or condemn any from actual experience. I have heard ladies complain of the use of strong powders by laundresses, and say that clothes were made tender and rotted by them. A pint of boiling water poured over a quarter of a pound of quick lime, and drained off clear into the copper before clothes are put in to boil, helps to whiten and bleach such as need it. It must be well stirred in. In most old-fashioned cottage homes, and, indeed, in many new ones, the Peggy tub is an important article, and a much-borrowed one amongst neighbourly people. Properly used it is a great help, especially for coarse things and the much-soiled clothing of working people. Old-fashioned as it is, numbers of cottage laundresses prefer it to some of the newer washing-machines. I say some, because there are excellent articles which lighten labour, and there are others so heavy and clumsy that they rather increase than diminish it.

The number of washing utensils, the length of lines, &c., must be regulated by the amount of work to be done, and the space available for drying purposes. The copper in which water is heated and clothes are boiled should be kept scrupulously clean, as, indeed, should every other utensil. Baskets, pegs, and lines ought to be regularly washed and brushed; the lines, when stretched, rubbed with a clean coarse cloth, and the wooden rails carefully dusted before the ironed garments are hung on them to be aired.

Soap goes further when dry. It is more economical to buy it a week, at least, before it is wanted. It should be cut up into squares and hung in a twine net in a dry place. When boiled starch is used, it is advisable to strain it through a muslin bag, which ensures perfect smoothness and no lumps. Solid blue, which I prefer to the powdered article, should be tied up tightly in double flannel, and the bag kept in a clean place when out of use.

These details may seem very trifling, but it is just want of attention to these little things which makes all the difference in the appearance of the linen.

Who has not been annoyed at seeing a dingy patch on the hem of an otherwise clean garment, and manifestly caused by dirty peg or line? Who has not chafed over a shiny patch of starch on the surface of a dainty shirt-front, or cuffs flecked here and there with dark blue, instead of being evenly tinted, as the linen was when new?

Yet all these oft-recurring disfigurements might have been easily prevented by attention to mere trifles such as I have enumerated.

In my early home it was an article of faith that girls ought to learn how to do everything connected with the house, not merely in theory, but practically; from cleaning a saucepan, blacking a grate, and scrubbing a floor, to the concocting of a dainty dish, or the "getting up" or lace as fine almost as cobwebs. I will not say that I attained perfection in all these branches; but I had to try my hand at them, and I have a very vivid recollection of the indignation I once felt when set to do something which I considered infra dig.

My dear, sensible father put his hand lovingly on my shoulder, and said, "My dear child, if, during your future life, you are so favoured by fortune as to have servants to do all these things for you, the knowledge you are gaining will enable you the better to estimate the work of others. You will know both the time and labour that should be bestowed on each, and this will teach you to be reasonable and patient with other workers. If your servants are ignorant you can teach them, and your knowledge will command their respect. If, on the other hand, you have no servants to teach, experience will render the work you have to do far easier to yourself."

The lesson went home. I believe that was my last grumble, and I have known what it is to feel very proud of many a bit of household work which my mother commended, and of the nice appearance of my white muslin frock, "got up" by my own youthful hands.

These lessons in domestic economy were not, however, allowed to interfere with my school duties, which were regularly attended to. Time was found for both, and I remained a daily pupil until I was nearly eighteen My French lessons at school were not less attractive because I could boxpleat a French cambric frill, or my Italian translation less carefully prepared because of my intimate acquaintance with an Italian iron. And now, as I look back, after being many years wife, mother, and mistress of a home, I assure you I value more than ever the lessons which my own mother taught me.

Let us now suppose ourselves preparing for a cottage wash. All articles, except prints and flannels, should be soaped and put in to steep the night before; and this points to Tuesday s the best for washing, because in hot weather especially the water is apt to smell badly if dirty clothes lie in it from Saturday for Monday.

The articles should be carefully sorted, according to texture, &c. Those which are comparatively little soiled should not be mixed with the coarser and dirtier. Fruit and wine stains on table linen should be taken out before they are touched with soap, as follows: Stretch the stained part over a bowl, cover it with salt, and pour quite boiling water over it. Some stains may be removed by dipping in sour buttermilk and drying in a hot sun, afterwards washing in cold water. This process may require repetition. By putting salt on a port-wine stain while it is wet, the mark will not become fixed; or the immediate application of a little sherry will have the same effect.  For the removal of iron-moulds, fill a basin with boiling water, cover it with a pewter plate, on which place your linen. Cover the spot with essential salts of lemon, and then slowly pour boiling water from a kettle upon the powder to dissolve it. Then lay a dry portion of the linen lightly over, so as to keep in the steam, but not to touch the stained part. If your salts be good the marks will quickly disappear. The article should then be washed out separately, or the salts will curdle the soap, and make all the water in the wash-tub hard and useless.

Perhaps it may seem out of place to introduce these instructions preparatory to a cottage wash. But it is in cottages that a very large proportion of the laundry work for much larger houses is carried out. This is almost wholly the case in our watering-places and other summer haunts, and very sweet does the linen smell when it has been dried in an old-fashioned cottage garden; very different from the smock colour which country people complain of in town-washed linen.

When the clothes are put in soak, all the most soiled parts should have a special rub after an extra soaping - such as collars and wristbands, grease spots, &c.

Early rising is essential on washing morning. The first thing to be done is to light the boiler fire to get the hot water ready. While this is heating let the kitchen, house, place, or by whatever name you call the apartment in which the fail take their meals, be put into its proper state of cleanliness. In towns washing is mostly done below stairs in the cellars; in country cottages it may be in a little lean-to washhouse, or perhaps, in the one room that serves for parlour, kitchen and every purpose, except sleeping. But even if this last is the case, there is all the more need for order. What makes the old jingle, "There's not a bit of pleasure upon a washing day," a truth?

Is it not the unswept hearth, the unmade beds, the unwashed breakfast crockery, the absence of everything in the shape of a decently-prepared meal?

So let your hearth be bright, if the wash-tub has to stand under the window; and do those little things *which you know must be done at the proper time.

When ready to commence, work the clothes that are in soak about with the hands; pour off the soiled sud, and add fresh hot water to each lot. Begin with the cleanest, lightest articles, and as each is washed through, soap it again and pass it into another vessel with fresh warm water. The articles should follow each other according to fineness and colour, a portion of the dirty water being poured off from time to time and fresh hot added. After a second washing through, all white articles should be scalded. Lay them in the pancheon - the coarsest at the bottom, and so on, till you finish with collars, cuffs, and muslins at the top; cover with a clean towel, to prevent grit or sediment from being mixed with your clothes, and then pour on boiling water till the vessel is full. When cool enough wring out, and rinse through plenty of perfectly clean water, into which enough blue has been squeezed from your flannel blue-bag to give it the necessary tint. Too much blue is a great mistake. It looks ugly by daylight, and, by gaslight, gives, what should be white articles, a grey appearance.

Most articles are dried before being starched, but I remember my mother had such as required only slight stiffening passed through what she used to call "water starch," after being blued. It was a little of the thick, boiled starch strained and immediately diluted, until it seemed scarcely thicker than water. The bodies of shirts were passed through this, and the wristbands, fronts, collars, &c., squeezed through some as thick as jelly afterwards. A little while was scraped into the pan when the starch was boiling, to prevent the sticking of the iron later on.

Fine white articles which require boiling should always be tied up very loosely, in a thin calico bag. Coarse towels and aprons do not need this precaution. Flannels and prints of the common kinds will follow each other very well. They should not be soaped in places but washed in a strong lather, made of white curd soap, boiled and prepared beforehand. These ought also to be *quickly done, and never allowed to lie in a lather, as it would shrink flannels and fade prints. They require twice washing through, but no scalding. Flannels are sometimes wrung out from a clean, light lather; others rinse them in clear water. The following is said to make the flannels keep their colour, and not shrink; "Put them into a pail, and pour boiling water on them, letting them lie till cold the first time of washing." I presume they would be first clean washed, as scalding dirty articles helps to fix the dirt.

Before making up flannels I always soak the lengths for twenty-four hours in cold water, and hang them out dripping in order to do the shrinking in advance.

Prints should be put into plenty of clean, cold water after washing, and a handful of salt dissolved in this will sometimes help to fix the colours. Delicate prints are best washed in a thin solution of bran.

A word about using plenty of rinsing water. I once heard a lady remark, as she cast a discontented glance at the linen which the laundress had sent in, "I do not know how it is that our clothes always have a muddled look. The creases are out, and there are no absolute marks. It seems as though the clothes were well rubbed, but they are grey instead of being white."

No doubt the greyness arose from using too little water. Where it is scarce, or has to be fetched from a distance, there is a strong temptation to stint the clothes; but where water is near and plentiful, there is no excuse for not giving them an abundant supply of it. In any case the improvement in the colour consequent on its use well repays a little extra trouble.

Coarse woollen stockings and other odds and ends in the shape of dusters and household cloths come in last, and require nothing but washing. For all these the Peggy is a valuable help.

A word about wringing clothes. The little inexpensive wringing machines, k press out the moisture, and serve also as mangles, may be found in the possession of most cottage laundresses, especially those who "take in washing." In large cities, a person in a poor neighbourhood will make a living by such a machine, a trifle being paid per dozen for wringing large things, and again for mangling. Articles with many buttons are best wrung by hand. Care should be taken that no part of the garment is tightly strained over the rest. A nightdress, for instance, should be gathered up at the collar and the garment lifted up and down and allowed to drop in loose folds. For want of care in this apparently trifling matter, new material has been cracked into slits, and unsightly patches rendered needful.

Every article should be thoroughly shaken before being pegged to the line. Black and delicate coloured stockings require great care, boiled curd soap or bran water used, and thoroughly rinsing. They should be hung up by the tops and dripping wet.

Apropos of clearing. A laundress, whose linen and prints were noted for whiteness and brilliancy of colour, told me that she used to place her tubs of clothes before using blue water, under a running spring in her garden.

After the actual washing is done, the last business is to scrub and clean all the utensils, clear out the copper, and tidy the cellar or washhouse. Let us hope some thoughtful little girl has the tea ready, so that there may be a refreshing cup for mother.

When writing about utensils, I forgot to mention the shaped tub which seems to me the best and the one always used in my native county, Lincolnshire. It is oblong, and narrower at the bottom than the top, so that the suds do not flow over so readily, but run back down the sloping sides. There is a little triangular shelf at one corner, to hold the soap.

Young laundresses, when learning, are very apt to rub the skin off the wrists. This is owing to the rubbing on the wrist instead of making the portion of the article come in contact with another. Some too wet their own clothes very much in the front. This is both uncomfortable and dangerous, as damp garments must be when near the chest or stomach. To obviate this a washing ad, as it is called, composed of several thicknesses of flannel or a stout material, may be tied on under the large apron.

In very poor homes there are a good many makeshifts on washing days. Clothes have to be boiled and water heated in the pot and kettle, which ton other occasions serve for potato billing and tea water. Or they are stewed in brown earthenware, covered up with a dinner plate, and on the oven shelf.

I was once in a very tidy cottage home at dinner time, when a little lassie brought in a baked rice pudding, cooked in small back kitchen. The mother noticed a peculiar odour, as the steam arose from the dish, and said, "Polly, the pudding has a queer smell." "Yes, mother," replied the child, "the stockings have boiled over on the oven shelf. But nothing went in the pudding for it was on the top, and the stocking pot was at the bottom."

This was reassuring, but the soapy liquid having boiled over on the hot shelf had burned there,  and raised sufficient steam and smoke to give the pudding an undoubted flavouring of essence of stewed stockings.

The drying of clothes in close city neighbourhoods is a great difficulty, and, in small streets with little traffic, is often done on lines stretched across the street itself. Sometimes the neat garments, dried under such difficulties, excite one's admiration. At others, the wretched, dingy rags call forth a mixture of disgust and pity.

Not long ago, I was going to pay a visit to a member of my mother's class, when the coachman brought his horse to a dead stand, instead of turning down the street. I soon discerned the reason. There were rows of linens across it, laden with garments, and the appearance of a coach excited a grand flutter. The women rushed out, slackened the lines, and lifted the props to such a height as to allow the coach to proceed. And so we passed through a series of arches, the flapping garments reminding one, in a ludicrous way, of trailing flags on so-called triumphant erections at gala times.

 The very queerest mode of drying I ever saw, though, and the strangest collections of duds, were in Edinburgh. It was on a Saturday afternoon, the washing day of the locality - the closest of closes in the auld toun. The pieces of garments - for there was not a whole one amongst them - were fastened to sticks and hung from the windows, story above story.

Our driver said that, in all probability, the adult male owners were in bed whilst the fragments were being washed, and the children ditto, unless the younger mortals were too restless, in which case they were probably careering up and down, let us say, the primeval costume of the Garden of Eden.

With this last sample of laundry work under difficulties I will close this chapter. In my next I hope to describe the cold starching, folding, ironing, and mangling of garments, table and bed linen, and to show my girl friends how very easily they may get up their laces I will also describe some laundry machinery, and, if space permits, tell something about the way in which washing is done in other countries.

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