Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Life of a Laundress by Jennifer Jakes


Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Naughty, naughty. *insert Tsk here* And while I will touch upon some of the “horizontal” work a Laundress could do to earn a little extra money, the main part of this post deals with the long hours of the world’s other oldest profession: Scrubbing clothes.

As a Civil War Re-enactor, I chose the Army Laundress as my portrayal. When I found this historical photo of a woman, her husband and three children, I focused on recreating her look and the look of her camp for mine. (My husband is a Corp. in a small artillery unit and two our daughters re-enact with us.) So I wanted to share some of the information I discovered while researching this Army occupation. Yep, you read that right. The Army Laundress was employed by the Union Army. (The Confederate Army quite possibly did the same, but my research was for the Union.) All info from: Civil War Times, Aug. 1999 - including historic photo - and Laundry Handbook by Virginia Mescher

*Appointed by the captain of the company, the first thing he assigned the laundress was her letter of good character. She was the only woman granted official status in the army camp. All others – including officers’ wives – were considered Camp Followers.
*She was usually married to or related to one of the lower ranking soldiers. Her tent was set apart from the men – and if she was married to a soldier, he normally stayed with her on Suds Row.
*While most laundresses seemed respectable enough, there were a few who made “lots of money nature’s way. One of them had a bill today against a soldier for forty dollars.” –  Quote from a private, 2nd Minnesota Infantry. (Wow! That’s a lot of scrubbing up and down on. . .  something! Bet it wasn’t his socks. *wink* ) Such improper behavior was grounds for dismissal UNLESS the company captain chose to look the other way.
*One such “energetic” washer woman could make upwards of $40 per month. A true laundress who actually washed clothing, made about $7- $12. per month. Combined with her husband’s pay of about $13 per month, the couple could earn a good amount for that day.
*The washer woman received a tent, daily rations of food and services of the surgeon. (These must have been the perks of the job. Unless you were the woman who made……..nevermind.)

Laundry was not a one day event for women of this time. It could take up to three days to complete all the steps. Here they are in order:
Mending – Yes, dirty clothes
Stain Removal
Soaking – Which would mean this and all of the above steps would be done on (example) Monday and left overnight to soak.
Washing(read Scrubbing) and/or Boiling – 1 wash, 1 boil, 1 rinse meant at least 50 gallons of water. (Hope they camped near a creek.)
Rinsing – 3 rinses were customary (think of wringing each piece – esp. those wool uniforms – by hand! Yes, some laundresses did have wringer (a clothes squeezer), but most outside of hospital workers did not.)
Bluing – This was used for whites. Bluing does not bleach the clothes, but once added to the final rinse, gave the illusion of “white”.
Bleaching –If the Bluing did not make the white items as white as desired, they could either be laid in the sun to sun-bleach or a chemical bleach could be used. A common chemical used was Ammonia. The most common source of ammonia was STALE URINE! (Bet those clothes smelled nice and freshly laundered. Not!)
Starching – Starch helped keep dirt from being ground into the material. Remember, these men or women did not change clothes daily. Sometimes, not even weekly.
Drying – Hopefully the laundress had a place to string a clothes line. Otherwise, clothes would be spread on the ground or on top of shrubs. (This ended Day 2 of washing.)
Sprinkling – After the clothes were dry, the starched items were sprinkled with water, rolled up and allowed to absorb the water so they were damp. This softened the starch and made clothes easier to iron.
Ironing – Flat or Sad irons (sad meant heavy) and it took 1 ½ hrs to heat a 6 pound iron. Laundresses kept several “irons in the fire” as she couldn’t wait 1 ½ each time an iron cooled. (I suspect this is where the saying too many irons in the fire came from.) They didn’t really put the iron in the fire though as that would have meant streaking soot over clean clothes so they used upside down frying pans set on the fire grate. I suppose the women might have brought their own Trivit from home. Anyway, ironing costs a soldier about 3 cents per shirt.
Airing – This was an important step as the clothes were still damp after ironing and they were folded damp, they would crease and if the weather was warm, mildew.
Folding – Even women doing laundry at home folded as most “poor to middle class” didn’t have closets.
 OK, I could go on and on with interesting facts but for now……….Go kiss your washing machine and dryer!
Find out more about Jennifer and her books at her website


  1. This is so true for about everything we do today.

  2. Jennifer,
    I've been looking for that article on washer women. Would you please tell me where you found that issue of Civil War Times?
    Thank you!