Laundering Clothing in the 18th Century

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.

And I’ll conclude this commentary section by linking to some 18th century laundry-related humor: a poem on “Washing-Week”, as seen in The Gentleman’s and London Magazine For July, 1765; and also, to Jonathan Swift’s Directions to the Laundress.

Laundry Instructions

Since these instructions are quite lengthy, I will just summarize them here – hop over to the original to read the complete text.

Images of clothes-laundering (including ironing, drying, etc.)