Doing laundry in 1916 Part II (the part where I actually do it)

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.

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

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.

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

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.

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

First  I added my nicest items: combination, corset covers, petticoats and pillow-slips:

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

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.

Doing laundry in 1916, thedreamstress.com

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.


  1. Raquel from JC says

    I love the name of the soap! I remember clearly the smell of freshly laundered sheets because my grandmother used to do the laundry by hand and with a special blue soap. I used to sat down the wet pieces of cloth and wait for the drops of water fall in my face! Oh! glorious sensation! I guess there is nothing better than clean laundry. Lovely post!

  2. Martina says

    My grandmothers were both doing laundry in 1916, and I don’t think they wore their corsets…they always put on housedresses (with a slip underneath) the second they got home. They wore girdles that were pretty much corsets (longline with bones and no bra top) up until their 90s. I don’t think you could scrub a floor on your hands and knees wearing a corset either…and they both did their floors that way most of the time (at least once a week). Mops were just for spot cleaning (almost every day!)

  3. S. A. Cox says

    I remember my freshman year of college, very close to twenty years ago now, when I would occasionally wash out socks in the sink so that I could get by in between trips to the laundromat (which was five blocks away). Both my roommate and I were surprised that the socks came out a different color when washed by hand– i.e., much cleaner than they would have, from a washing machine.

  4. Angela says

    I’m new to reading your blog, and I am enjoying your project so much! We were so broke during college that we did our washing in our bathtub. We would put our jeans in and dance a la grape stomping style to get the dust and dirt out. Since we were in Tucson, AZ things got very dirty from the desert winds, but then everything dried quickly because it already felt as if we were living in a dryer. 😉

  5. Gillian Stapleton says

    Last year my washing machine broke completely, and I did all my washing by hand, in the bathtub, for 6 months, while I saved up for a new one. It was tough, heavy work – I can definitely sympathise!

  6. Sunlight was good stuff. Mum sometimes used it for handwashing clothes when I was a kid, but I don’t think you can get it anymore. It’s interesting that it got the things cleaner than a washing machine.

    It’s a hell of a lot of work, that’s for sure. Not just the physical labour itself, but the fact that you’re doing it in a full set of 1910s clothing, which sounds challenging to say the least! And it really brings home the extent to which our ancestors were at the mercy of the weather. At this time of year, if you were unlucky, your washing really could take all week to dry.

    • Emma says

      Depends where you live, I guess. I live in Canberra, Australia and I can get it in the supermarket. It still looks exactly the same (same soap, same packet). I use it for stain removal all the time. It works better than the couple of times I tried a fancy stain removal for much less.

      • You’re right. I had a good look when I went grocery shopping this week, and yes Sunlight is still available.

  7. Fascinating! I’m sure you were exhausted. Can you imagine being a washer woman and doing that job all day? Goodness!


  8. Theresa says

    I’m loving this whole series and wait with anticipation for future posts.

  9. I’m so impressed!!! While I love hanging out clothes on the line, there is nothing that would ever want to make me wash clothes by hand for myself, let alone an entire family, every single week. When people ask me what the best invention is: washing machine. Hands down. Good for you for giving it a go and I hope your muscles get huge. 🙂

  10. Lyndsey says

    Wow very interesting! Actually doing things the way people used to have to gives you much better insight into how life actually was back then (well as much as we can approximate it) My Dad grew up in Wellington in the 50’s. Not sure how they did they laundry then but don’t think they had a “washing machine” – I’ll have to ask. I know they didn’t have a fridge. My grandmother must have done laundry this way as she grew up in the early 20th century NZ – they lived in a very real area so they didn’t have had any mod cons at all.

  11. Lyndsey says

    Wow very interesting! Actually doing things the way people used to have to gives you much better insight into how life actually was back then (well as much as we can approximate it) My Dad grew up in Wellington in the 50’s. Not sure how they did they laundry then but don’t think they had a “washing machine” – I’ll have to ask. I know they didn’t have a fridge. My grandmother must have done laundry this way as she grew up in the early 20th century NZ – they lived in a very rural area so they didn’t have had any mod cons at all.

  12. Emilia says

    Ruth Goodman talked a lot about the process of laundry on both the Victorian and Edwardian Farm series she did with two archaeologists. Flipping hard work, every time, no matter what new thing came to make it easier. We have a tiny apartment washer with inky a spin dry, no dryer, and it’s primitive enough that I see the transition from dolly and mangle really clearly. I do think it cleans better than the big machines. Wish we could get Sunlight Soap here in the States! The soap so often is half the battle, I think.

    • Jeanne says

      Try Fels-Naptha. It’s similar to sunlight and has been around for 100+ years. Comes in a bar in stain removal section. I used it for washing some old cotton lace.

  13. Anna says

    I still got two sad irons somewhere in house. when I asked it turned out that the small one was still in use up to the 50’s/60’s along with an electric one(my guess the sad one that it was meant for more delicate and precise work). but we have this masonry kitchen stove in home which was still used back then, so I guess using sad iron was as hazardous as boiling water for tea 🙂

  14. linda olson says

    I wonder when the hand crank wringers came into existance? I remember my grandmother had one that screwed on the edge of her tub , with two rubber rollers and a wooden handle crank. She squeezed a lot of water out of those old aprons and house dresses of hers.

    • They have been around since the 18th century (though not with rubber rollers until later), so a proper 1916 housewife would probably have had one!

  15. This reminds me so much of my Grandma’s laundry routine. (Though I guess hers is a reflection of rural Saskatchewan in the 50s and 60s, since before that they didn’t have electricity.) Monday is the wash day, all the laundry is assembled (on the beds, the bottom sheet comes off to be washed and the top sheet gets tucked in as a bottom sheet—no fitted sheets allowed, thank you!)

    They fill up the washer and add soap—it’s much newer than 1916 but much older than anything I’ve ever used, with an electric mangle on top. It agitates but does not spin dry.

    Laundry starts with the cleanest, whitest things (bedsheets). Each load gets its time in the machine, then gets run through the mangle to press out a lot of the water. She also had a little spin dryer to get as much water out as possible before things were hung to dry. (I should point out you can’t hang laundry out in Saskatchewan in the winter and have it dry—you will just get very clean Popsicles.) I suppose before the electric dryer they just hung things all over the house. The line outside is great in the summer, though.

    The loads proceed from light and cleanest to darkest and dirtiest—the very last is the socks. 🙂 The up-side of the process is it uses comparatively little water, which is important on a farm where the well often runs dry.

  16. Do you know how they would have washed corsets in those days? It seems like the metal busks and eyelets would have been prone to rusting if they came in contact with water.

    • Basically, you avoided washing your corset as much as possible: that’s the whole point of all the underlayers: the chemise/combinations would protect your corset from sweat and body dirt, and the corset cover and clothes would protect it from outer dirt.

      To freshen it, you could air dry it, or do a rudimentary dry cleaning with a strong alcohol.

      Many of the 1910s corsets that I’ve inspected advertise their ability to resist rust – with ‘Guaranteed Rustless’ stamped on the waist stay, etc. They have rust now, but the metal bones (metal boning was more common in corsets in 1910 than whalebone, at least in NZ, based advertising, statistics from the whaling industry, and the fact that every extent 1910s corset that I know of in NZ has metal bones), eyelets and busks could all have been treated to withstand a bit of moisture.

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