Laundering Clothing in the 18th Century
Last updated: Nov 15, 2021
From a letter from John Harrower to his wife (June 14, 1774), regarding his life as an indentured servant in Virginia: “They wash here the whitest that ever I seed for they first Boyle all the Cloaths with soap, and then wash them, and I may put on clean linen every day if I please.”
Janet Schaw has much more to say on the subject, from her observations of life in North Carolina in 1775:
As soap and candle are commonly a joint manufacture, I will now mention that article, which they have here very good, as they have the finest ashes in the world. But when you have occasionally to buy it, however, you meet only with Irish soap, and tho' some house-wives are so notable as to make it for themselves, which they do at no expence, yet most of them buy it at the store at a monstrous price. They are the worst washers of linen I ever saw, and tho' it be the country of indigo they never use blue, nor allow the sun to look at them. All the [cloaths] coarse and fine, bed and table linen, lawns, cambricks and muslins, chints, checks, all are promiscuously thrown into a copper with a quantity of water and a large piece of soap. This is set a boiling, while a Negro wench turns them over with a stick. This operation over, they are taken out, squeezed and thrown on the Pales to dry. They use no calender; they are however much better smoothed than washed. Mrs Miller offered to teach them the British method of treating linens, which she understands extremely well, as, to do her justice, she does every thing that belongs to her station, and might be of great use to them. But Mrs Schaw was affronted at the offer. She showed them however by bleaching those of Miss Rutherfurd, my brothers and mine, how different a little labour made them appear, and indeed the power of the sun was extremely apparent in the immediate recovery of some bed and table-linen, that had been so ruined by sea water, that I thought them irrecoverably lost. Poor Bob, who has not seen a bleaching-washing since a boy, was charmed with it, and Mrs Miller was not a little pleased with the compliments he made her on it. Indeed this and a dish of hodge podge she made for him have made her a vast favourite, and she has promised him a sheeps' head. But as she rises in the Master's esteem, she falls in that of the Mistress, who by no means approves Scotch or indeed British innovations.
Since these instructions are quite lengthy, I’m summarizing them here – hop over to the original to read the complete text.
- Dictionarium Domesticum (1736) offers instructions on the following matters:
Bleaching raw Silk.
Bleaching or Whitening Linnen.
Soap, is made in the following manner.
To waſh muſlins.
To rinſe your Muslins before you Starch them.
To make the Starch for the Heads and Muſlins.
Spots, to take out of Linnen, Woollen, Wilk, &c.
To take all Sorts of Spots out of Clothes.
To take a Spot of Oil out of Sattin, &c. To take Spots out of white Silk, or Velvet dy’d in Grain.
To take Spots out of Scarlet, either Silk or Woollen, without loſing the Colour.
To take out Spots of Greaſe or Fat.
To take Spots of Ink or Wine out of Linnen or Woollen.
- Smegmatalogia, or the Art of Making Potashes and Soap, and Bleaching of Linen by which the Industrious Farmer is taught to Bleach and Wash his Cloath with the Produce of our Own Country (1736)
- Madam Johnson’s Preſent (1770) divides up its laundry-related advice into two sections:
- The Chamber-Maid: “As the waſhing and cleaning of her Miſtreſs’s Apparel are part of her Buſineſs, ſhe will find the following Receipts uſeful.”
To take Dirt from any Silk.
To keep Silks from ſtaining in waſhing.
How to take out Spots of Oil, or any greaſy Spots, in Silk.
To take Spots out of thin Silks.
To take Pitch, Tar, or Paint out of Silks.
To clean all Sorts of plain Silks.
To clean Satins and Damaſsks.
To clean flowered Silks.
How to reſtore the Colour to Silks of a Dark Brown or Iron-Grey, &c., Colours, ſpotted with Lemons, &c.
A quick Way to take Greaſe out of Woollen-Cloth.
How to take all Kinds of Spots out of Cloth, Stuffs, Silk, &c.
To take Iron-Moulds, and all Sorts of Spots and Stains out of Linen.
To take Paint out of Linen.
To clean Gold and Silver Stuffs.
To clean Gold and Silver Lace.
To waſh Cambricks, Muſlins, and Laces.
How to make Starch for ſmall Linen.
To waſh Silk Stockings or Handkerchiefs.
To clean caſt Ribbands.
- The Laundry-Maid. “As this is not wrote for the accomplſshed Laundreſs, but only for young Beginners, and thoſe who undertake all Sorts of Work, I ſhall not treat on the practical Parts of her Buſineſs, but only give a few general Remarks, together with ſome of the neweſt and moſt approved Receipts neceſſary to be known.”
[Some remarks on the use of soft water, and methods of softening water for laundry.]
[A method for servants to soak soiled clothing overnight.]
[A method for washing chintz and fine printed cottons, and how to avoid having the colors run.]
To waſh Thread and Cotton Stockings.
To waſh Worſted Stockings.
- Der sichere Nothhelfer für Städtebewohner und Landleute (1794)
- Every Woman her own House-Keeper (1796)
- Clear-Starching. “This we conceive to be an article of ſo much uſe in female œconomy, as to deſerve very particular attention.”
[To wash muslins.]
To rinſe Muslins before you ſtarch them.
To make ſtarch for Muſlins.
[To starch cambricks and lawns.]
[To starch aprons and handkerchiefs.]
- Laundry-Maid. “Some remarks not leſs uſeful to this particular ſervant, than to families in general.”
[A copper for the purpoſe of washing.]
[Clear water is neceſſary.]
[The Laundry-Maid ought to be very correct in counting, and ſetting down the various articles ſhe receives, and to return whatever has been delivered to her.]
To take out Stains of Oil.
[Linen stained with claret or other red wine.]
[Spots of Ink on linen.]
[When linen has been ſcorched.]
[The beſt method of getting up Lace.]
[To do lace as it is done in Holland; a very excellent way to do fringes.]
Images of clothes-laundering (including ironing, drying, etc.)
- Woman washing linen in a washtub, 1711
- The Laundress by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1730s
- River bank scene, 1733-1734
- A washerwoman by Louis Philippe Boitard, 1733-1763
- The Laundress by Giacomo Ceruti, c. 1736
- The Washerwomen by Pietro Longhi
- Waschen Blanchir Lavare (a copy of the laundress from Mercier's Domestick Amusements), 1740s
- A Scottish Washerwoman and two washerwomen in Edinburgh by Paul Sandby
- Capriccio of a Venetian courtyard
- A view of Tivoli by Thomas Patch, c. 1750-1754
- At Sandpit Gate by Paul Sandby, c. 1752
- Essay de Paysage, 1755
- Laundresses pressing clothes by Edme Bouchardon
- Les laveuses, c. 1760-1781
- The Laundress (La Blanchisseuse) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1761
- A Lady's Maid Soaping Linen (and another version) by Henry Robert Morland, c. 1765-1782
- A Laundry Maid Ironing (and another version) by Henry Robert Morland, c. 1765-1782
- La Bièvre by Hubert Robert, 1768
- Domestick Employment: Starching, 1769
- Domestick Employment, Washing
- Illustration for Basedow’s 'Elementary Work' by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, 1770; women washing clothes, ironing, and hanging clothing on a clothesline
- Farm with laundresses by Hendrik Meijer, 1771
- The Laundry Maid wrings out a linen shirt, 1774
- Interior from Näs Estate by Pehr Hilleström, c. 1775; one woman irons a shift while the other knits in the round on multiple needles
- The Medway at Rochester by Francis Wheatley, 1776
- The Mason and the Laundress, Les Costumes François, 1776
- Detail, a military encampment in the Green Park by Edward Eyre, c. 1780
- Halfway House, Sadler's Wells by Paul Sandby, 1780
- The Jolly Landlady in Hyde Park 1780 (Ten Views of Encampments in Hyde-Park and Black-Heath) by Paul Sandby
- View near the Ring in Hyde Park, looking towards Grosvenor Gate, during the Encampment by Paul Sandby, 1780
- The Laundress (Ten Views of Encampments in Hyde-Park and Black-Heath) by Paul Sandby, 1780
- The Soldiers Toilet &c. in Hyde Park 1780 by Paul Sandby
- Camp in Hyde Park, London
- An interior by Pietro Longhi
- Gentle Shepherd, 1785
- La Blanchisseuse, c. 1785-1815
- The Camp Laundry, 1782
- A Military Encampment in Hyde Park by James Malton, 1785
- Group of washerwomen on a lake, c. 1786-1787
- Landscape with figures by Johan Philip Korn
- Woman hanging out laundry by Johannes Pieter de Frey, 1790s
- Washerwomen by Paul Sandby, c. 1790-1805
- Diligence and Dissipation: The Modest Girl and the Wanton / Fellow Servants in a Gentleman’s House, 1797
- Soldiers Cooking, 1798
- Matrimonial Comforts: Washing Day, 1799
- Landscape with two women talking, about to wash clothes, after Paul Sandby
- Hanging the Laundry by George Morland
- Washing with ashes by Julius Caesar Ibbetson
- The Garden of Thomas Sandby's House at Englefield Green near Windsor by Paul Sandby, c. 1800
- A rustic scene by Thomas Hearne
- Woman at a washtub by Jacob Ernst Marcus
- Fisherman's Quarter's, Robin Hood's Bay by Joseph Powell
- A Washerwoman and A Woman with Wash-Tubs by John Varley
- The Whip Club, or Laughable Clown and his darling in ton, c. 1811