Laundry is just one of those things that will always exist. Always has and always will. It has really only been the past two hundred years or so that the method of doing laundry has changed. With the invention of the mangle, washboard, and eventually, the washing machine, that act of laundering has become easier and easier.
For those of you interested in 19th century laundry practices and reenactments, you are in luck. There are a few extra tools to make the job easier then the 18th century or earlier. In today’s post I am going to share a simple set up I did at a local museum, a few primary sources for more specifics, and some ways to keep your historical wardrobe clean.
Over the past summer, I put together a small laundry demonstration for visitors on simple ways to do laundry in the 19th century. I had a few buckets, some wooden dowels (agitators), soap, and some water I fetched from the pump quite a few yards away! I even was able to have our bread oven baker heat up some water (which on a hot summer day was a blessing so I wouldn’t have to start the wood stove inside the house I work out of) to help dissolve the soap. It was interesting to hear peoples reactions ranging from interest, disdain, and surprise that there wasn’t more to it. And I think that last observation is a great one on two counts – first, laundry didn’t always mean harsh chemicals, boiling cauldrons of water, and yards of clothesline – second, putting together a quick display for my museum (and any reenactment or vent for that matter) doesn’t have to be some complicated affair. Also, grass bleaching white cotton is the best way to take your muddy looking garments from bleh to almost brand new! Warm sun and green grass, who knew!?!
A few images from a simple laundry demonstration I did early in 2021. I used a goat’s milk blended lye soap (gentler on the hands) to clean white undergarments and then sun bleached them on the grass. I also create a potato starch (recipe for this was taken from the Working Woman’s Guide) to starch the petticoats when dry…to middling success! 🙂
My knowledge on 19th century laundry practices is no way as in-depth as my knowledge on fashion and sewing. However, I have compiled a few primary and secondary sources to help guide those of you who are thinking of dabbling in a bit of garment cleaning.
Sources and Information on 19th Century Laundry
Looking for some more modern tips and tricks to keep your historical wardrobe clean? Read on!
- My #1 rule when it comes to any historical garment is to never wash it in a modern washing machine. It will reek havoc on your hand stitching, gathers, pleats, etc. Especially as modern garments do not have serged edges, fraying can be a major concern.
- Hand wash or spot clean as needed.
- Line dry and lay flat your garments make sure to give them a gentle shake and slight shift during the drying time. This will ensure they dry evenly and as wrinkle free as possible.
- Use a wrinkle release spray. I use this on my petticoats and skirts, especially on the areas where I sit. Then I just hang up to let gravity do its thing. You can get a natural organic
- If you have silk which has had mud on it, do not wash. Instead t let the mud dry and beat it off rug beater style.
- Use a mild soap when hand washing to avoid bleeding staining on delicate fabrics.
- Let the weather and location help dictate what you wear to avoid damages to delicate fabrics – also, choosing natural toned fabrics (brown, grey, etc) for outdoor events will also be helpful in disguising mud.
Looking to create your own Laundress? Make sure and check out the Working Woman’s Gown Sewing Course in the Classes section of the Membership!