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.

  • Madam Johnson’s Preſent (1770) divides up its laundry-related advice into two sections:
    • The Chamber-Maid: “As the waſing 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.
  • 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.]
      [Iron moulds.]
      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.)