Ancestors and Laundry

Picture hand-washing, and you’ll probably either get the ancients scrubbing their clothes alongside streams, or the more Victorian image of copper boiler, mangle, and a whole Monday given over to the job. We’ve got washing machines because laundry is dreadfully hard, time consuming drudgery that working class women had to bear for centuries.

It’s not that simple, but I realise firstly that most people do not handwash, and therefore that most people will not have a realistic sense of how much easier modern handwashing is than the Victorian image of it. Washing machines use a lot of electricity and water. If you are struggling to make ends meet, handwashing may help you. If you want to be greener, this is also a consideration, water use being one of our many unhelpful ways of impacting on the environment. The carbon footprint of clothes has more to do with how you wash it than where you got it, I believe. Come the zombie apocalypse, you may be glad to know it’s easy to rinse out your knickers…

Ancestral laundry involved very different fabrics. Cotton, linen and wool predominated in the historical wash. These are not easy to clean, and are really hard to dry. Modern synthetics take a lot less effort (I have handwashed both). They dry far more rapidly, even if all you do is wring them out. Modern cleaning products, even the eco ones, are a good deal stronger and more effective than what the grandmothers had to work with, this again makes the job easier. Unlike our grandmothers, we have hot running water (for now, at least). Heating the water, and getting the fuel to heat the water was a big contributor to making the job hard and lengthy. We don’t have that problem. We can cheat a bit and get a spin dryer to shake the worst of the water out and still come in with a far lower water and electric use than the washing machine.

Our ancestors were, for the greater part, labourers. Even the wealthy were outside a lot, using horses to get around, and obliged to walk down muddy streets. History was a much dirtier place. Washing a miner’s clothes must have been really intensive work. Farm labourers, sweating in the fields all day must have required some serious scrubbing. We just don’t get as dirty; mostly washing means getting the dust and a modest amount of sweat out, maybe the odd food stain from children. Unless you go so far as to handwash nappies, you’re never going to meet anything on the scale our ancestors had to contend with unless you are washing for a manual labourer, and there’s not so much of that about and it’s not as dirty as it used to be.

Washing machines aren’t actually great for heavy soiling anyway. If I do an epic walk and get the hems of my trousers covered in mud, and throw them through a washing machine, the odds are a lot of the mud will still be there when they come out.  Scrubbing with a brush may take more effort, but I find I often get things cleaner by handwashing. Handwashing a couple of items is no less efficient, while throwing two shirts in a washing machine is a huge waste of power. There are all kinds of advantages to doing it the old way. It does take more effort, and more time, but not an unviable amount, for most of us. Obviously if you have three toddlers to wash for, this may not be for you.

Part of what locks us into our modern, unsustainable behaviours is the belief that there are no alternatives. We’re convinced that life without certain key gadgets, would be unbearable. I do not have many of the key gadgets. I’m fine. My energy bill is nothing like as crazy as most people’s, I do not spend my entire time scrubbing things, and nobody has died. It is worth questioning everything we take for granted, because there are so often viable other ways.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

8 responses to “Ancestors and Laundry

  • lornasmithers

    Wow, really makes me think however did the workers in the dusty oily mills and factories and the farm workers and labourers get their clothes clean without washing machines and powder? Must have been a heck of a job! Makes me think about how much water and electricity this moment are powering and spinning in washing machines. Crazy!

  • celticchick

    I think this is why ancient people didn’t have to exercise–they got a work out just doing daily chores. Washing dirty clothes by hand had to be difficult. I washed and dried a wool sweater once and it shrunk to the size of a doll’s sweater. Wool wasn’t meant for a modern dryer. lol

    • gfenton

      We live in a 5th floor apartment in Manhattan, so hand-washing is not really an option as we have nowhere to dry it!
      We’re lucky, as we’re among the 17% of Manhattanites that have a washer & drier in the apartment – the vast majority of buildings don’t allow this. Older buildings’ plumbing and electrical systems just can’t cope.
      A lot of buildings (ours included) have launderettes in the basement which accept credit cards. The alternative is a commercial laundry/dry cleaner – we have 3 within a block of where we live.
      A hint for those who do machine wash, gleaned from my days at Butler school – never use so called “fabric softeners” with towels. They work by putting a microscopically thin layer of PTFE (the stuff that non stick surfaces on cookware are made) on the fibers. The towels feel soft, but don’t absorb moisture. And NEVER use those fabric conditioner sheets in the dryer; same problem re coating fibers plus they damage the moisture detectors. For really fluffy towels that will still dry you, throw 3 or 4 tennis balls in the drier with the towels.

  • Laura Perry

    Having spent a couple decades as a living history demonstrator, I can tell you, modern life is very easy in the sense of labor required for daily essentials. But while we’ve made our lives easier physically, we’ve wrecked our environment and made it much harder to get in the daily exercise we need. I’m reminded of the joke, “Now we’ll have a moment of silence for those people stuck in traffic on their way to the gym to ride the stationary bike.” Having purposely removed some modern conveniences from my life and added in a lot of requisite physical activity (I grow a huge garden, for instance) I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve done ourselves a disservice by assuming that the best life is a labor-free one. While I value modern sanitation and running water and their positive impact on health and safety, I think we might want to reevaluate some of our other choices. As for the factory and farm workers getting their clothes clean, I can tell you, a bubbling iron washpot over an open fire, with some handmade soap grated in, will get out grease, grime and stains that no modern washing machine or fancy detergent can touch.

    • Nimue Brown

      Thank you for the insights! I admit my experimentation has not gone quite that far, although it now occurs to me that modern laundry is up against modern food colouring, which the ancestors didn’t have to contend with. We had different and more realistic standards around cleanliness before the adverts in which everything has a computer-generated sparkle. And the cost is horrendous, environmentally speaking.

  • gfenton

    We also have modern artificial fibers, which present their own problems in terms of laundry!

  • Angharad Lois

    I love this sort of practical inspiration. Incidentally (I hope this isn’t hijacking; I have a sort of one-track mind at the moment) the Centre for Archive Studies in Liverpool is running a series of projects on taking inspiration from the past to think of better ways of living in the future. Last year’s was on local, community food production; this year’s (with the main event tomorrow) is on time and working patterns. It’s so easy to forget that things were not always like this & don’t have to be like this even now, especially when it isn’t working.

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