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.