How the other half worked, and worked

A somewhat later Domestic Science class at Goosehill School, from Fred Moffat's Pictorial Morpeth.
A somewhat later Domestic Science class at Goosehill School, from Fred Moffat's Pictorial Morpeth.

I picked up Mrs Lord’s Laundry Work for Scholars, 1895, in an antiquarian bookshop in Melrose.

Mrs Lord was a new breed of woman, a professional. She was Senior Organiser and Superintendent of Laundry for the London School Board, and Superintendent of Teachers’ Laundry Classes of the Joint Committee on Manual Training, comprising the Board, the City and Guilds Technical Institute, and the Worshipful Company of Drapers.

Few careers were open to women, but the Elementary Education Act of 1870 resulted in a great increase in the number of schools, and consequently of teachers, including school mistresses. Elementary schools in receipt of government grants were inspected by the Education Department of the Privy Council, and instruction for girls in domestic subjects became compulsory in 1878.

Mrs Lord had already published a teachers’ handbook, complete with Syllabus of Lessons, but this was for the girls themselves, “the greater percentage of whom will be called upon in their womanhood to perform housework.”

She does her best to put the drudgery of washday on a lofty plane by quoting Carlyle and Ruskin on the dignity of work, and Herbert Spencer on the value of knowledge that prevents loss of health.

Parson Woodforde’s five-weekly ‘washing week’ of a century before was now weekly.

Mrs Lord divides it into 15 stages, beginning with ‘removal of stains and mending, if necessary’, and ending with glossing and airing.

Tuesday was washday, Monday for preparation and Wednesday for finishing.

Water quality was critical. Hard water could be cured by boiling, but permanent hardness, due to calcium sulphate (gypsum), had to have alkali added, the best and cheapest being soda.

She discusses different kinds of soap, and the use of other chemicals, including blue. There were three different kinds of blue: Indigo (a plant), Prussian Blue, and Ultramarine.

She did not like proprietary powders: “Washing powders are made chiefly of borax and soda, sometimes lime also is added. As their composition is often doubtful, however, it is best to keep such powders out of the laundry, and to use instead only soap, soda and borax.”

This is interesting because Robert Spear Hudson invented his soap powder, Hudson’s Dry Soap, before 1850, and by 1895 it had become one of the first ever major brands.

Monday has a long section on stain removal. Depending on the stain and the material itself, you might use common salt, boiling water, lemon juice, red ink (to remove black ink), turpentine, spirits of wine, salts of lemon and oxalic acid. The last two, being poisonous, “should not be used where there are children”.

Next, sorting the clothes into categories: Fine things, eg collars, cuffs and laces; table linen; bed and body linen; Coarse things, eg work aprons; and prints and flannels.

The first four were soaked, each in a separate tub of cold water. Soda, previously dissolved, was added for coarse things, borax for body linen. Men’s collars and cuffs, which got very dirty, were well soaped.

The first rule for Tuesday is, “Rise early on the washing day”. And the great object, except for prints, was to achieve “a good colour, that is... a beautiful white appearance when finished”.

Flannel, which mainly meant under-garments, was incredibly troublesome: Water at blood heat, no strong soaps and no alkalis, else it became thick and felted, or lost its warmth and colour. You couldn’t soap flannel, but made a jelly by shredding ¼lb of soap and dissolving it in a gallon of boiling water.

On washday, you melted some soap jelly in hot water, and added it to two tubs of washing water. A third, for rinsing, had ammonia in, or salt or borax for coloured flannels.

Each garment was washed separately by squeezing lightly. You then squeezed it dry, and wrapped it in a dry towel to be twisted tightly between two persons, or passed through a wringer several times, refolding it each time, then shook it to raise the nap, and dried it quickly in the sun or before the fire, but not in strong sun, nor too close to the fire.

Fine flannels were ironed with a cool iron under a damp cloth, but the others put through the mangle.

It is interesting that Mrs Lord draws a distinction between wringers and mangles, which to me are the same thing.

Prints were washed immediately after the flannels, and with similar strictures: Very little soap, no soda, no boiling, then rinsed cold in salted water to fix the colours.

Everything else was comparatively simple. You had two tubs of hot, soapy water.

The ‘firsting’ got the worst of the dirt out, and the ‘seconding’ what remained.

You rubbed garments on themselves, dipping them frequently in the water. Or they could be rubbed on the ‘grooved board’, though why she didn’t call it a washboard, I don’t know.

Muslin and lace were not rubbed, but squeezed between the palms of the hands.

Boiling took 15 minutes. Some people thought it turned the clothes yellow, but: “Most practical housewives know that boiling, if properly carried out, greatly improves the clothes, though there is no doubt that hard water greatly hinders its efficiency.”

They were then rinsed in warm water, the copper at the same time being topped up with cold water and shredded soap, ready for the next batch.

After that, blueing. Blueing required great mental discretion if the clothes were not to become too blued, or, worse, streaky. Interestingly, Mrs Lord recommended solid blue in a packet, which presumably meant it was a branded product.

All clothes were then dried and folded, ready for mangling and ironing.

Finally, you cleared the fire from under the copper, cleaned it with soap, soda and hot water, and polished it with bath-brick.

Galvanised tubs the same, with ammonia instead of soda. Wooden tubs had a little clean water left in to stop them from shrinking.

Wednesday was for starching, mangling, ironing, glossing, airing and putting away.

Starching, like blueing, was a tricky business, and ironing had a myriad of different rules, depending on what you were ironing.

The irons were flat irons, which you cleaned with powdered bath brick. Laundries in great houses had a special stove for heating them, but most people had a ‘hanger’ in front of the fire. To stop the irons being smoked, you always pulled the hot coals forward and put fresh coal on at the back.

Goffering, a skill dating from Elizabethan times, was still in use for frills, eg on nightdresses and baby’s clothes.

Goffering irons were like scissors with tubular ‘blades’. You heated them, took them with the thumb and second finger, wiped them on a duster, tested them for temperature on a clean rag, slid the blades onto the frill, keeping your thumb underneath, then turned your hand over, bringing the thumb on top to make a ‘flute’, smoothed the lace onto the iron with your other hand, withdrew the iron, then repeated this at equal intervals all round the collar.