Doing Laundry in 1911

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, August 28, 1911: I was good and mad this morning. I got tired of watching the cows all the time and then I wanted my lawn dress washed and Ruth won’t do it.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Poor Grandma—she still has to watch the cows. It sounds like an incredibly boring job.

Sisters can be annoying—and refuse to do the things that you want them to do.

I don’t blame Ruth for not wanting to wash the dress. Doing laundry in 1911 was a huge process—and entire books were written about how to do it. The Muffly’s didn’t have electricity, so there would have limited the options for doing laundry.

Here are some quotes from a book published in 1911 called Laundry Work for Use in Home and Schools by Juniata Shepperd that will give you a sense of what washing clothes involved:

Prepare melted soap for the washing by using bits and pieces and ends of soap which have been left. Cut them fine, and shave up as much more as is necessary, or buy soap chips for the purpose. Place the soap in an earthen jar, just cover with water, and set the jar in the oven or on the stove until the soap is melted or dissolved. Use in the proportion of one gallon of water to one-fourth pound of soap. This should be prepared the day before the family washing is to be done.

Portable tubs are usually made of wood or of galvanized iron. A wooden tub is heavy to handle and requires special care in dry weather to prevent its falling apart but it holds the wringer well and is easily kept clean. A galvanized iron tub is light, and not difficult to clean but does not hold the wringer unless fitted with wooden cleats and clamped to the wash bench.

Washboards are in different patterns and made of different materials. A wooden washboard probably injures the cloths as little as any kind, but is rather unpleasant to use unless one is accustomed to it. In selecting a glass or metal-covered board, choose one that is not too much corrugated, because many angles wear clothes as they glide over them.

When the washing is finished the washboard should be washed, wiped dry, and put away in a clean, dry place.

Each part of the wringer should be perfectly clean. When through using it each time, the rollers should be wiped with a dry cloth, or if much soiled, they should be rubbed with a cloth wet with turpentine or kerosene, washed with soapsuds, rinsed, and wiped dry.

When clothes have been well washed in one suds, they can usually be made clean and white by placing them in tepid suds, bringing to the boiling point, and allowing them to boil for a few minutes.

There are a few points to be remembered in preparing clothes for boiling. They must not stop boiling after they begin, and when taken into tepid water from the boiler each piece, must be punched under the water as soon as put into the tub. Exposure to the air seems to set the dirt, and cold water contracts the fibers, thus holding the dust particles, instead of allowing them to fall out, as they should when the clothes are rinsed or manipulated in this water, preparatory to the rinse water proper.

Obstinate stains on white goods may sometimes be removed by soaking the spot in turpentine, then washing, boiling, and finishing.

Clothes lines are of different kinds, and may be either movable or stationary. There are several patterns of clothes pins, but the plain, simple ones are usually most satisfactory, as they are inexpensive, easily washed when dirty, and do their work very well.

And, then the clothes would need to be ironed . . .

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