Laundressing? Laundresship? (Vote for your preferred noun in the comments section).
It wasn’t long into my reenacting “career” (3 or 4 events) before I realized that being a woman in a Living History Encampment can get downright boring. The men are up and about, for the most part, from first call in the morning ‘til evening gun-cleaning – but the ladies, outside of preparing meals and getting ready for dances, mostly just sit around and sew. Which is awesome, and a great opportunity for fellowship with one’s fellows - if you’re the “sit around and sew” type. I am not.
I considered the different types of activity-centered living-history-impressions available to the weaker sex: nurse (done a lot – and no longer allowed on the battlefield in our association), cook (no really good cooking equipment available in our unit’s camp), vivandierre (period correct for SOME units, but definitely NOT the Virginia Cavalry), female-soldier-passing-as-a-man (no matter how hard I tried – there’s no way I could conceivably pass for a man, and I’m just stich-nazi enough to care), camp-follower (Now REALLY!?) . . . laundress (ooooh).
The thought brought me back to a thrilling “Adobe Days” reenactment at the Rancho Los Cerritos when I was a wee tyke, during which I (in addition to stomping mud into adobe bricks and learning how to write with a quill pen) got to scrub laundry on a washboard and send it through a hand-wringer. I begged my mom for days afterward to give me a tub and a board and let me do our laundry in the back-yard (just like in the “Kirsten” books and Little House on the Prairie!!!). Here was an impression that was involved, informative, and possibly interactive. I also couldn’t recall the last time I saw a laundress at a Civil War event.
I was lucky to find an affordable, large wooden washtub and an old washboard in working order at the first antique store I tried (there IS a God). Add a couple buckets, a large tub for rinsing (Yes, yes, galvanized-metals weren’t used until the 1880s. I won’t tell if you won’t!), a boiler (only to display since we’re not allowed ground-fires in So.Cal), a table, some bottles for “stain-remedies,” a clothes-brush, a ledger, an old iron, and the Laundress was in business! I bought a booklet from the Kansas Mercantile on creating a believable Military Laundress impression, and studied up. The following is the “system” I employ at events, but it is always changing, and I would welcome any comments/questions/suggestions for improvement that any of y’all might have!
1. Boil Water – I start with cold-water washing, but the water takes a long time to boil over an open flame and by the time it’s off-boil I’ll probably be ready for it. Yummy breakfast optional ;-)
2. Carry Water for Tubs – Sometimes one can rely on a friendly trooper or two to help with this chore, but not always. One starts to appreciate the hard work that went into this job right about now. Also important to remember that the clothes will replace their volume in the water so one needen’t fill the tubs as high as one might think at first.
3. Soaking – In real life, the clothes would’ve been mended, treated for stains, and left to soak overnight. I take some “warm” clothes (semi-soiled shirts, etc.) and throw them in a soak-bucket to illustrate these steps without actually displaying them. As I wash, I’ll throw the next “batch” of clothes in the soak bucket so there’s always something in it.
4. Plunge and Scrub – I wash wools and delicates first, with a milder soap while the water is still cold and clean. When I’m done with that, I’ll start adding the hot water from the stove to shavings of lye-soap (people often ask me – “why do you need a knife?” “For my soap and naughty children,” says I . . . Mid-19th century laundresses didn’t rub the soap directly onto the clothes – though I’ve personally found this removes dirt a little more easily – they dissolved the soap in hot water and then added the mix to the water in the tub) and wash the “warms” – wearable cottons, etc. This is a great point to get kids involved – they always want to come and help!
5. The Hot Load – this part is always fun for me because it feels the most realistic of all the steps. I’ve been saving any really dirty whites for the end, when the water is nice and murky. I throw out most of the cool water and add the rest of what’s been boiling, then (because it’s too hot to pick up and scrup with your hands) I agitate the wash with a wooden spoon (I need something bigger, but a spoon will do for now). Then, when the water’s cooled a tad, I scrub until my hands are sore. I’ve worked out some really tough cast-iron stains with this method before!
6. Rinse & Hang – In real 1860s life, laundry (especially linens and whites) would’ve received 3 rinses and a boil (in addition to starching & ironing – whew!!). I can only really display one rinse, though I do bring a boiler to show what one would look like. This part can be fairly back-breaking – it’s always nice to grab a couple of passing kids to help you wring stuff out – ESPECIALLY the woolens!
7. RELAX. Sit. Spin. Sew. Cook. Rest aching back and wonder about washer-woman’s elbow. Hound troopers to pay-up for last-month’s long-johns. And/or Start-Over, depending on if one sees some promising public heading one’s way . . .