As promised, I have done laundry in 1916 style – or at least an approximation thereof.
Our early 1920s house was built complete with a laundry room – an extension off the back of the house, of much simpler construction than the rest. The extension also includes the loo.
The house even has the old laundry sinks, but they are sitting in the backyard, half full of soil, and were clearly once used as plant boxes.
As I discussed in my last post, I don’t have a copper or a period washing machine, but particularly in an urban setting like Wellington, coppers would have been less common by 1916. Without these things, I did my best to achieve the same amount of work, and the same result, that a 1910s housewife would have.
I was lucky that Wednesday, my nominated laundry day this week, was clear and bright and warm. Much better for drying, and much more pleasant for hanging out.
First, I scrubbed out our laundry sink. It was used for cleaning paint brushes all summer, and was in terrible condition.
Once it was clean, I plugged it and filled it with hot water. It must have been an amazing labour saver for women once plumbed hot water became available. You could get your laundry clean without boiling a copper, AND could drain the water without having to carry it away in buckets. Life in 1916 was hard, but it must have been so much easier for those in urban settings and new houses, that were the first to get such mod cons.
While my sink filled I grated Sunlight Soap into it. I was afraid this would be very hard, and that my big grater would create big chunks of soap that would take forever to dissolve, but it was actually dead easy. It grated into a powder, and went very quickly.
In grating and dissolving the soap, I realised I recognised the smell – it’s ‘clean old lady fabric’ smell, which completely makes sense.
I’m only washing items that are the type of fabric that would have been around, and laundered, in 1916: sheets, my blouses and under-things, tea towels, etc.
First I added my nicest items: combination, corset covers, petticoats and pillow-slips:
Those were left to soak for half an hour, as per the Sunlight testimonial. You can see the lovely milky colour the water has turned around them from the soap.
When the half hour was up, I pulled them out one by one, scrubbing them against themselves to get them clean, and wringing them out and putting them in a bucket.
This bucket got carried to the kitchen sink (I couldn’t think of anywhere else big enough to rinse them), and I put in the next load of items to soak. While they soak, I rinsed and rung out the first lot, and then carried them out, and hung them on the line. It took the full half hour and more, just for the few items I had (the thing about doing laundry three days into my challenge is there isn’t much to do!).
The second load was slightly grubbier items: Mr D’s work shirts (which got given a pre-scrub with Sunlight in the collar area), and my stockings.
The final load was a modern towel, and a duvet cover. I had doubts about both, but wanted to do a full load.
Have you ever picked up a fully soaking, quite fluffy towel? It holds a good couple of gallons of water! Talk about a workout! The duvet cover wasn’t much better.
And trying to wring out either by yourself? Exhausting.
By the time I had finished it was well over two hours later, my apron was soaked, as were my sleeve cuffs (thank goodness for warm weather is all I can say), but my laundry was all hung out, and wrung out, and so was I.
I pulled something funny and painful in my upper chest hanging out the laundry. It’s just hard to reach your arms that high while wearing a corset. So now, every once in a while, when I breath in, I get a sharp stab of pain across my collarbone.
Because of the warm weather the laundry dried overnight, and I’m delighted to say that my laundry is extremely clean – even more so than I think I would have gotten it with a washing machine. It was the tiniest bit damp when I brought it in, so pressed very easily.
I pressed everything. Even the pillowcases. Let me tell you, that has never happened before!
I must confess I’m just using a modern iron for pressing. I ran into the problem that by 1916, in Wellington, an electric iron is plausible/likely, and while you can find 1910s irons for sale, the electrics don’t work (obviously). Ultimately, I couldn’t figure out how to replicate a period electric iron safely, and a cast iron iron on a gas stove fell into Mr D’s realm of ‘you aren’t allowed to endanger yourself or the house for this project’ veto power.
Conclusion: In a weird way, it’s harder to replicate an era of transitional modernity than the distant past. There were lots of ‘conveniences’: they just weren’t as convenient.