Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Western Wednesday- Laundry on the Trail

There are many conveniences these days that help us with our day to day chores. One such convenience that I don't think I'd want to do without is the washing machine. Here is some information I gleaned on washing clothes in the Old West.

If a person found themselves traveling far from towns, the best way to clean clothes would be to beat them on rocks near a stream. Where they could be dunked, the dirt smacked out of them, and then dunked again and hung up to dry on bushes or rocks.

Did you know that dirt was rinsed and beat out of clothes before they were put in the boiling water? They did this to not set the stains with the hot water. One way to do this if there wasn't a washboard around was a rough board raised on legs. The garment being washed was dunked in water, placed on the board and beat with a paddle, shoving the dirt and water out of the cloth and into the grooves in the board. This was done thoroughly, the garment was rinsed, turned over and beat again, making sure the stains and dirt were gone before they rubbed the soap on the garment and boiled it. After twenty minutes of stirring the garments to make sure the soap had filtered through it all, they were lifted out with a square, long-handled paddle and put in a barrel or tub of fresh clean water, rinsed and put in another tub of fresh water, then hung up to dry. 

A heavy cast iron kettle was usually used for boiling the clothes. A fire was built under the kettle after a bucket or two of water was added, so as not to crack the kettle from the heat. As the water continued to heat, buckets were added until the right amount was in the kettle and the water boiled. Wood had to be kept under the kettle to keep it hot. 

The long paddles were made of pine because it was a light wood. The long handled paddle for stirring the garments had a square handle. This kept the handle from spinning in their hands when they pulled a heavy object out of the kettle and less clean garments were dropped on the ground.  The paddle end had rounded corners to make sure the kettle could be scraped thoroughly to get all garments out of the water before it was dumped out.

I can say after reading about how they did laundry I'm thankful for my washer. Research and digging up how people did things in the past is one of the reasons I enjoy writing historical books. 


Kathy Otten said...

Hi Paty,
Interesting info. I always thought they scrubbed the clothes on the washboard using soap. Nice to learn the right way it was done. I wonder what their hands looked like.

Paty Jager said...

Well according to a book I'm using to write up a post about soap making the lard or tallow in the soap helped keep their hands from chapping. But still the beating and rubbing without the soap would give their hands a beating I'd think. I know my mother-in-law who cleans houses doesn't wear gloves or use hand lotion and her hands are like sandpaper and have lots of cracks which she doesn't even seem to notice.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I remember my mother used to hand wash our clothes when we were little. She had a wash tub with a built-in ridged board. She didn't have to fetch and boil water, but she was still thankful when we could afford an automatic washer.

Remembering those times, she said she'd rather do without any other appliance, short of a stove top, than go without a washing machine.

LKF said...

When I was little we had the ringer washer and I thought that was the coolest thing. I would have never made it if I had to beat and scrub my clothes. Thank goodness for modern conviences.
Great article.

Judith Ashley said...

I remember we had the tub with washboard and a wringer washer growing up. Laundry was a day long event (at least) and hanging clothes on clothes lines in the basement in winter/rainy weather and outside weather permitting was something we kids helped with when we were old enough. We could help take things down before hanging them up.

When I was first married, I took the everything to the laundromat but brought them home to hang on racks to dry in the living room where our stove was.

Until the 1990's I still washed 'delicates' by hand.

Now I have racks I put out when the weather permits and hang clothes out to dry. I love the sunshine fresh smell!

I'm very glad I have the conveniences I do...I cana't imagine I'd have the time or energy to write if I did everything the 'old way'.

Anonymous said...

Ever since I had to do the baby's diapers, sheets and clothes by hand in the bath tub, I have considered my washing machine one of the greatest inventions in the world. Even a wringer washing machine is better than a bath tub.
One couldn't have many fine clothes if they were beaten to death every time they were washed.
In houses in towns, they used a slightly lighter touch on some fabrics.

Meg said...

Fabulous info, Paty! I remember my mom using the old fashioned tub with wringer atop for my dad's work clothes, since they were too filthy to put in the regular washer! LOL I'm thankful my hub does the laundry now! ;-D

dm said...

I'll bet the three main businesses in a frontier town where a saloon, a brothel, and a laundry, not necessarily in that order of importance:-).
I remember as a child, my grandmother had an electric wringer/washing machine. This was two big metal tubs, with post agitators, on wheeled legs, that were pushed into the middle of the sunporch on washday. One tub held hot water and soap and one clean cold water. There was a wringer mechanism attachment between them, the rollers could go either way and the clothes were handfed into the wringer. It took skill and attention pull the clothing out of the tubs and to feed just the right amount of fabric through without jamming the mechanism (which might break the wringer)or catching your fingers (which would break your fingers).
Monday was wash day..all day. Mom would load up us kids and the baskets of laundry and take us to Grandma's house. After the clothes were sorted for color and damage,hard soil pre-scrubbed by hand, and run through the machine, the laundry was carted outside and hung on the long set of clothes lines in the backyard (these were located on a well-tended lawn between the house and the corn field, just east of the grape arbor).
We kids would play hide-n-seek in the arbor, race spread-armed through the billows of white bedsheets and roll in the carpet of sweet, prickly grass.
In late afternoon, when everything was dry, folded and packed up, Grandma would make everyone BrownCows. She would set out the tall fluted glasses with the long handled spoons. Then drop a creamy, ivory scoop of French vanilla ice cream into each glass and pour foaming, tangy rootbeer right up to lip of the glass.
I am also thankful for my washer and dryer. Heaven knows I have neither the patience or the strength to spend an entire day devoted to laundry. But, to this day the scent of sun dried laundry is like a time machine to a happy place.

Paty Jager said...

Hi Alison. I agree with your mother!

Lynda, After the birth of our first child we lived in a small house and the washer was on the back porch with no insulation. There were many days I washed the clothes in the bathtub and then put them in the dryer because the pump on the washer was froze.

Hi Judith, I agree, if I had to do the housework now they did at the time of my books, I'd never have energy to write!

Anonymous, That's true to beat the clothes all the time would make them wear out quickly.

Hi Meg! I wish my hubby did the laundry. Actually I wish he would do any housework.

dm, That is a wonderful memory of wash day to have. In the summer I hang the sheets out because I love that scent. And I hang dry all the jeans year round. I have hanging racks my mother-in law brought from Holland that I use indoors.

Kirsten Arnold said...

Fascinating post, Paty! I remember my grandmothers talking about washing clothes by hand. All I can say is thank God for GE. :o)

Regan Black said...

Wow. So many things we take for granted... I feel the need to go hug my washer!

Callie said...

Loved the article, Paty. So many times I think I would like to time travel myself, and then I read something like this, and think, hmm. Not as much fun as it is when I write historical novels, lol.

Ally Broadfield said...

Very interesting. My grandmother used to talk about how they had a wash day every week followed by a day of ironing (this would have been in the 1930s). I can't imagine not having my washer. I would have needed a huge wardrobe or to be rich enough to have servants!

Gerri Bowen said...

I love washing machines and dryers!

Ginger Simpson said...

Yep, great minds do think alike. This ties in greatly with my post today on Cowboy Kisses ( Who would've thought we would mesh so well on the one day of the month allotted to my blog? Thanks for sharing such great info. I remember playing with my grandmother's washboard. Oops...I've revealed I'm older than the dirt in the grooves of it. *lol*

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Does this mean I can't complain about doing laundry anymore? Unfortunately I didn't think ahead and read your article to hubby. :)

Another thing to think about - they got real dirty out on the trail so imagine how much dirt had to be beat out of the cloth. :(

Paty Jager said...

Kristen, Amen!

LOL Regan! It is the one appliance I would hate to lose.

Callie, True, it's more fun to write the characters into doing what we ourselves wouldn't want to do. ;0)

Ally, I remember Sunday afternoon was always ironing day at our house. My grandmother(who lived with us) would iron everythign but the handkerchiefs and my mom's nurse's uniforms. Then I had to iron the handkerchiefs, to learn how to use an iron and my mom ironed her uniforms.

Gerri, Me too!

LOL Ginger. I have a washboard I inherited. It's a decoration in my laundry room.

Paisley, Can you imagine the sweat stains on some of the clothes that they wore for a week before they laundered them?

Ella Quinn said...

Great post, Paty. I don't like doing the laundry now, I would have really hated it back then.

Susan Jaymes said...

Great post. I can't even imagine doing laundry that way. I'm thankful I have a washer and dryer.

Paty Jager said...

Hi Ella! I hear ya! I have a basket of clothes sitting in the living room that needs folded..been there a couple of days...maybe I just do that so my hubby has to walk naked through the house to get his underwear. ;0)

Susan, Thanks for stopping in!

Lauri said...

I have a basket that needs to be folded, too, Paty! This is a great post! I can't believe the clothes we wear today would hold up against being washed in the 'old fashioned' way.

Margaret Tanner said...

Great post Paty.
I won't be complaining about doing the laundry any time soon after reading your article. Although being a historical writer myself, I do know how hard laundering the clothes were, but you have just reinforced the view that I am glad I was born in modern times.
I do remember my grandmother had a wood fired copper for washing.


Paty Jager said...

Lauri, I agree, the cheap garments sold at major chain stores wouldn't last through one washing.

Hi Margaret! We had an old "boiling pot" when I was growing up but my grandmother planted flowers in it! She was probably glad to use it that way and not for its original use.

Sarah Raplee said...

Makes a body thankful for modern conveniences, doesn't it?

Paty Jager said...

Yes, it does, Sarah!

Anonymous said...

Makes me so glad I don't have to do laundry that way. But I'm also glad I don't have to do it the way we did it when I was a girl, with a washing machine that was basically a big tub that electronically agitated but did nothing else. After the clothes were washed we put them through the ringer and into a tub of rinse water. After rinsing, they were put back through the wringer into another tub of rinse water, back through the ringer and then hung on the line to dry. That wasn't a lot of fun either.

anderson, marylou said...

this is why they had red, rough hands.
My grannie explained clothes washing similar to this too and she didn't live
'out west". She made the "best" lye soap!

Paty Jager said...

Charlene, Our time conserving appliances are a treasure. Thank you for stopping in and commenting!

Hi Mary Lou, That's a subject for another post- making soap.

Anonymous said...

I just posted a blog last week on the history of soap. You might find it interesting.