Starting my early Saturday morning chore of laundry, I couldn’t help recall this article I wrote a few years ago. Doing the laundry is everyone’s favorite chore, right? Ummm… no! Even with modern conveniences, it’s a task I don’t think many of us look forward to. Sort the darks and lights, delicate linens from the jeans, pre-treat stains, use various cycles and water temperatures, to bleach or not to bleach, does it go in the dryer, on a hanger or the clothesline outside, does it need to be ironed or can it get by with some wrinkles, etc. You all get the idea!
Actually there was a time my sister (age 10) and I (age 11) did all the family laundry at the city laundromat at the top of the block after my third brother was born and our Mom was laid up with health issues that summer. We pulled the “little red wagon” with one or two baskets of laundry piled up, and learned pretty quick how to do the laundry on our own without being taught, using those big washers and driers. With teamwork, we folded the big sheets and everything else to the admiration of older folks doing their own laundry. But the best part was the incentive in that we also had some money to buy treats each time!
I remember as I grew up that my dad’s mother did laundry on Monday and ironed on Tuesday, without fail. Both she and my mother had old wringer washers, which fascinated us kids. My sister and I actually enjoyed putting the laundry through the rollers to “wring” out the excess water, heeding the warning to keep our fingers away from those menacing rollers! I’m sure many of my readers remember those antique washers, too! With perhaps a few fingers painfully scrunched between the rollers.
So, imagine what it must have been like doing laundry in colonial days without washers and dryers. The fabrics were wool, linen, cotton or silk, without permanent press. It was a major undertaking back then, and not an effort completed every week. I found it interesting to learn that most items laundered were “body linen.” These garments (undershirts, shifts, chemises, etc.) were worn next to the skin to protect the fancy outer shirts and dresses from skin oils and sweat. Clothing from a few centuries ago was not laundered often because the undergarments protected them, in turn being the very reason that antique clothing has survived the centuries. Removable cuffs and collars also protected their shirts and dresses from dirt, along with the full bib aprons which I recall my mom’s mother always wearing over her dresses in the old farmhouse. My dad’s mother seemed to wear mostly a below-the-waist type apron over her every-day dress. Wearing pants, or jeans, was out of the question for my grandmothers’ generation!
But, to wash all the laundry, soap was needed. One of the annual fall chores was to make soap, typically done after the fall butchering of hogs. Virtually every part of a butchered hog had a purpose with the lard being used for cooking or making soap. Soap making began well in advance by burning hardwoods down to white ash. Next, a tall wooden barrel was set up with holes in the bottom for drainage. Small stones were placed in the bottom of the barrel, and covered with straw. A good layer of white ashes was put in with naturally soft rainwater poured on top of the ashes. Then followed a slow drainage of the water down through the ashes, straw and stones before the liquid leached out of the holes in the bottom of the barrel and into a separate wooden or glass bucket. This effort produced liquid lye. Aluminum containers were not used as the lye would destroy them.
Sometimes an ash hopper was used to make lye rather than the tall wooden barrel. By keeping the ash hopper in a shed to protect it from rain, fresh ashes could be added periodically with water poured on top every so often to obtain a steady supply of lye. Again, the lye would drip slowly into a bucket beneath the hopper.
To test the strength of the lye, either a potato or an egg was floated on top. If it floated with about a modern quarter-sized area of its surface above the liquid, the lye was ready for use in making soap. If it was too weak, it could be boiled down more, or poured back through more ashes. If it was too strong, a little more water was added.
To make old-fashioned soap, water, lye and tallow/animal fat is needed. One recipe I found online uses 2 gallons of rain water, 10 ounces of lye by volume (not weight), and 5 lbs of tallow/lard (animal fat). Trim the fat into about 1-inch cubes, removing anything that looks like meat or is not white. Start a fire under a cast iron pot (split pine apparently works best as it heats quickly and the heat is controlled easier). Place the tallow cubes into the pot to render (cook) the fat into a liquid. Once the fat has cooked down, strain it through cheesecloth in a funnel-shaped container. The liquid should be a nice amber color.
Then, measure and weigh 5 lbs of liquid fat, putting it back into the cast iron pot (again, aluminum will be eaten by the lye). Slowly add the water to the fat, which cools the fat down to solidify it into a greasy cream. Make sure the mixture is well blended. Carefully measure out 10 oz. of lye into a glass container. (Red Devil Lye brand can be purchased, and was often used by our ancestors if they did not make their own lye from ashes.) Carefully add the lye into the tallow/water mixture using a wooden paddle to stir it gently. Be careful – since lye is extremely caustic, it can burn your skin and eyes on contact.
Cook the soap mixture for 30-60 minutes, stirring occasionally, adjusting the heat to keep it from boiling over. After cooking, the mixture should be similar to a creamy chicken soup. When the wooden paddle removed from the mixture has “sheets” that look like hot wax hanging from the paddle, it’s ready to pour into wooden, glass or cast-iron molds that have been lined with plastic wrap or waxed paper. Allow the soap to harden for a few days before cutting it into bars. It may take a week or more to harden for use. (Online Source: Shepherds Hill Homestead, Making Lye Soap – no longer available online. Try Daves Homestead, How to make the easiest lye soap ever.
Before washing stacks of laundry, the ladies would have sorted the clothing, soaking some overnight in soapy water. Sounds similar enough, doesn’t it?! But the difference starts with their gathering enough firewood to feed a large fire under each huge copper (which did not rust or stain like iron) or black cast-iron kettle. You’ve seen those kettles in front yards either upright or on their side as a large flower urn. The Iron Kettle Farm in Candor takes its name from their large black iron kettles on display.
Next, water had to be hauled from the well to fill the kettle(s) and any other wash or rinse basins. About 20-40 gallons of water were needed per wash load, with perhaps 10 gallons more for the scrub and rinse basins. Remember, they had no running water back then either; and, if they did not have a water source close at hand, walking a distance with heavy shoulder yokes to carry buckets of water would have been the norm. My mom’s mother raised a large farm family of 12 children, not having running water in the house until the early 1930s, 20 or so years after my grandparents married (my mother, child #11, was born after running water was available). Are we tired yet?!
After starting a good fire under the kettle to boil the water, some lye soap was put into the water. Clothes were then dunked into the boiling water and agitated by using a 2-3 foot long wooden paddle. Some garments might be removed to a smaller basin where they could be scrubbed more thoroughly to remove dirt and stains. Remember the antique wooden shutter-like washboards? They were put to good use as the clothes were rubbed over the “shutters” to loosen dirt. Chalk and brick dust were often used on greasy stains. Alcohol could treat grass stains, kerosene, and blood stains. Milk was believed to be helpful in removing fruit stains from clothing and urine stains from diapers. Lemon and onion juice were often used for bleaching.
Colored garments were not washed with lye soap in order to prevent fading. Instead, they were scrubbed by hand in cold or lukewarm water. Need something starched? Great-great-grandma simply put that garment into water that had been used to cook potatoes or rice, making sure the water had not soured or turned moldy before putting the clothing in it. If the used potato or rice water was not used for laundry, it was often used to make bread. Nothing went to waste back then.
Once boiled, washed and rinsed, the laundry had to be wrung out before drying. If you were wealthy, you might own a “box mangle” which wound the laundry around rollers, and then rolled a heavy box over them to squeeze out excess water. Normally, water was simply wrung out by hand by twisting each garment. Then, the clothing was hung on a clothesline (without clothespins), spread out on bushes, hedgerows, fences, wooden frames, or even spread out over the lawn. And, oh my! If the farm animals or pets got into the clothing, one had quite a mess and had to start the process all over again. If it was not good drying weather, everything was dried inside the house or up in the attic. A good hot fire in the fireplace or cook stove would help dry the clothes very well.
After the laundry was done and dried, the ladies would need to iron the clothing. That required heating up heavy irons in the fireplace in order to press each garment. What a hot chore that must have been! And all the time they were taking care of the laundry, they had other household chores and meals to prepare, children to care for, and barn chores if the man of the house was out in the fields clearing land, planting or harvesting. It was definitely not an easy life for our ancestors.
Linda Roorda writes from her home in Spencer.