Stay Connected

Friday, January 22, 2021

A Lesson in Gratitude: Laundry Then and Now

Home Washing Machine & Wringer, c.1869, lithograph, Library of Congress, 

As we had a brief discussion on laundry rooms the other day, I thought you might be interested to read what laundry work was like during the Victorian era, 160 years ago. Our modern complaints about doing laundry include small work spaces, glitchy mechanisms, flooding possibilities, and the necessity of using paid laundry facilities at times. Mrs. Isabella Beeton's The Book of Household Management, 1861, gives us insights into just how difficult this "women's work" once was.

When we think of hired help in our times, we often assume that the hiring household is somewhat well-to-do. In the mid-1800s, that wasn't necessarily the case. The cost to employ household help was very low, due to a large pool of laborers combined with no minimum wage laws. Middle class households often had at least one domestic servant, an all-purpose maid who attended to all manners of household cleaning for the family, including the laundry.  It was assumed that Mrs. Beeton's instructions for the laundry-maid were written for the mistress of the household, so that she could instruct her hired help.

It's interesting to note that while country or village households favored the use of servants for managing laundry, affordable commercial laundries popped up in cities in the later 1800s, appealing to middle class households as a send-out option for at least part of their laundry. 


The laundry-maid is charged with the duty of washing and getting-up the family linen,—a situation of great importance where the washing is all done at home; . . .In country and suburban houses, where greater conveniences exist, washing at home is more common,—in country places universal.

Today, we feel blessed to have one small room dedicated to washing, drying, and perhaps ironing. In the Victorian era, tackling a country home's laundry was a big enough undertaking to require several rooms. Fortunately, an English country home would have the available land to build the needed rudimentary structures, which were often detached from the main home. 

"The laundry establishment consists of a washing-house, an ironing and drying-room, and sometimes a drying-closet heated by furnaces. The washing-house will probably be attached to the kitchen; but it is better that it should be completely detached from it, and of one story, with a funnel or shaft to carry off the steam. It will be of a size proportioned to the extent of the washing to be done. A range of tubs, either round or oblong, opposite to, and sloping towards, the light, narrower at the bottom than the top, for convenience in stooping over, and fixed at a height suited to the convenience of the women using them.

"Adjoining the bleaching-house, a second room, about the same size, is required for ironing, drying, and mangling. The contents of this room should comprise an ironing-board, opposite to the light; a strong white deal table, about twelve or fourteen feet long, and about three and a half feet broad, with drawers for ironing-blankets; a mangle in one corner, and clothes-horses for drying and airing; cupboards for holding the various irons, starch, and other articles used in ironing; a hot-plate built in the chimney, with furnace beneath it for beating the irons."

Not only did a household's laundry necessitate several rooms or buildings, but the process of washing, drying, and ironing required numerous contraptions and pieces of equipment. Irons were, of course, non-electrified and needed periodic heating throughout the process of ironing all of the linens and clothing. We may have just one iron in our modern home. Before electric irons, a household would have a minimum of two irons (one in use while the other was on the hot-plate or range to ready). Flat irons were made in a couple of different sizes and weights, the largest and heaviest could weigh as much as 9 pounds. A mangle was a contraption that we might think of as just a wringer, with 2 wooden rollers turned by a crank for removing water from washed linens or clothing. This contraption was also used as a crude pressing instrument to be used after laundry had dried.

Some of us might choose one day per week to launder all of our family's clothing and linens with the help of modern automatic equipment and targeted cleaning agents. In Victorian times, depending on the size of a household, laundry could take most of the week.

"The laundry-maid should commence her labours on Monday morning by a careful examination of the articles committed to her care, and enter them in the washing-book; separating the white linen and collars, sheets and body-linen, into one heap, fine muslins into another, coloured cotton and linen fabrics into a third, woollens into a fourth, and the coarser kitchen and other greasy cloths into a fifth. Every article should be examined for ink- or grease-spots, or for fruit- or wine-stains. Ink-spots are removed by dipping the part into hot water, and then spreading it smoothly on the hand or on the back of a spoon, pouring a few drops of oxalic acid or salts of sorel over the ink-spot, rubbing and rinsing it in cold water till removed; grease-spots, by rubbing over with yellow soap, and rinsing in hot water; fruit- and wine-spots, by dipping in a solution of sal ammonia or spirits of wine, and rinsing."

I like how Mrs. Beeton is quick to point out that the inexperienced servant just doesn't quite know how to do laundry like the seasoned laundry maid. 

"Novices in the art sometimes rub the linen against the skin; more experienced washerwomen rub one linen surface against the other, which saves their hands, and enables them to continue their labour much longer, besides economizing time, two parts being thus cleaned at once."

We rely on manufacturers to create detergents and laundry aids for our different laundry needs. The Victorians relied on knowledge gained through apprenticeship or oral teachings of various chemical compounds, temperatures of water, and the use of light vs. shade for items' different laundry needs. Laundry detergent would not be invented until the early 1900s.

"In order to remove every particle of soap, and produce a good colour, they should now be placed, and boiled for about an hour and a half in the copper, in which soda, in the proportion of a teaspoonful to every two gallons of water, has been dissolved. Some very careful laundresses put the linen into a canvas bag to protect it from the scum and the sides of the copper. When taken out, it should again be rinsed, first in clean hot water, and then in abundance of cold water slightly tinged with fig-blue, and again wrung dry. It should now be removed from the washing-house and hung up to dry or spread out to bleach, if there are conveniences for it; and the earlier in the day this is done, the clearer and whiter will be the linen.

"Coloured muslins, cottons, and linens, require a milder treatment; any application of soda will discharge the colour, and soaking all night, even in pure water, deteriorates the more delicate tints. When ready for washing, if not too dirty, they should be put into cold water and washed very speedily, using the common yellow soap, which should be rinsed off immediately.

"Woollen articles are liable to shrink, unless the flannel has been well shrunk before making up. This liability is increased where very hot water is used: cold water would thus be the best to wash woollens in; but, as this would not remove the dirt, lukewarm water, about 85°, and yellow soap, are recommended. When thoroughly washed in this, they require a good deal of rinsing in cold water, to remove the soap.

"Greasy cloths, which have soaked all night in the liquid described, should be now washed out with soap-and-water as hot as the hands can bear, 1011first in one water, and rinsed out in a second; and afterwards boiled for two hours in water in which a little soda is dissolved. When taken out, they should be rinsed in cold water, and laid out or hung up to dry.

"Silks, when washed, should be dried in the shade, on a linen-horse, taking care that they are kept smooth and unwrinkled. If black or blue, they will be improved if laid again on the table, when dry, and sponged with gin, or whiskey, or other white spirit."

When I finish laundry for the day, the extent of my clean-up work is to close the lid to the washer and put the detergent away. Imagine if we also had to wash out the washer and dryer and scrub the floor to complete the day's work.

"The operations should be concluded by rinsing the tubs, cleaning the coppers, scrubbing the floors of the washing-house, and restoring everything to order and cleanliness.

Thursday and Friday, in a laundry in full employ, Are usually devoted to mangling, starching, and ironing."


by Mrs. Isabella Beeton, 1961

I don't know about you, but reading Mrs. Beeton's manual reminded me of just how fortunate I am.


  1. A very good reminder to be thankful for what we have, in ALL things. It's easy to complain but good to be reminded of the freedoms we have to be able to have all the help in our "equipment". I can list a lot of things: cars, washers, dryers, ranges, microwaves, dishwashers, furnaces, AC units, homes, jobs, clothes, food, grocery stores, hospitals, police, fire departments, cell phones. OK, the list goes on for all the things I'm thankful for. Thank you, Lili, for bringing thankfulness to mind today!

    1. Hi Alice,
      I thought this was interesting reading. All the advancements in equipment we have today were probably unimaginable to the minds of those 160 years ago. It makes me wonder what life might be like in another 160 years.

      Have a great weekend, Alice!

  2. Laundry was a horrible chore back then, wasn't it? I am the youngest of four and my mom didn't have an automatic wash machine until I came along. If I recall the story correctly, my dad had to use the wringer washer while mom was in the hospital recuperating from having me (they stayed for many days back then) and the work was so hard, he decided mom needed an automatic washer. My dad was a good man, but like many of his generation, I don't think he gave household chores a second thought.

    This was interesting reading, Lili.

    1. Hi Kris,
      I'm glad that your dad did buy your mom an automatic washer. That must have been quite a chore with 3 small children before you. We take so much for granted these days.

      Have a good weekend, Kris.

  3. I always find this kind of stuff fascinating. Years ago, I think on PBS, they had a show about present day people living in a Victorian house. You could see through the show just how labor intensive things were at that time. I got a very different idea by seeing the lifestyle lived than when I toured a Victorian houses with their interesting furniture and architecture of what life was actually like. An eye opener.

    1. I remember that show, Live and Learn. I found it fascinating, too. I'm very glad to be living here and now instead of then.


Thank you for joining the discussion today. Here at creative savv, we strive to maintain a respectful community centered around frugal living. Creative savv would like to continue to be a welcoming and safe place for discussion, and as such reserves the right to remove comments that are inappropriate for the conversation.


Be a voice that helps someone else on their frugal living journey

Are you interested in writing for creative savv?
What's your frugal story?

Do you have a favorite frugal recipe, special insight, DIY project, or tips that could make frugal living more do-able for someone else?

Creative savv is seeking new voices.


share this post