The Historian by Robert Wood: Monday was Washday

Submitted photo
Washing clothes the old way at the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.
Submitted photo Washing clothes the old way at the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.

In the old days, the housewife’s work week was ordered by a strict schedule: Monday, washday; Tuesday, ironing; Wednesday, mending (repairing seams and tears as well as patching and darning); Thursday, upstairs cleaning (The washed, ironed and mended clothing was taken up, put away, and the upstairs cleaned and mattresses turned.); Friday, baking; Saturday, cleaning (downstairs); Sunday, church. Downstairs cleaning was done on Saturday because Sunday afternoon was visiting day. The routine was strictly adhered to by almost everyone. Indeed, the earlier on a Monday the woman had her wash on the line the more industrious she appeared in the neighborhood. An informant notes that one woman had her wash hanging before first light! If it rained on Monday, wash was hung on temporary lines in the attic, on porches, and kitchens.

Before the industrial age, which started about 1850, with its accompanying advertising, I think people had a very different mind-set and world view about many things. Before mid-19th century, concepts such as “cleanliness” were no doubt viewed differently. That said, it’s questionable how frequently the Pennsylvania Dutch washed clothing in the old days, but it was surely not as frequently as today.

There are early references to heating hot water in an iron kettle near the creek and boiling clothes then washing them in the creek. Clothing was hung on fences and bushes to dry. Also, after butchering they washed the clothing since the big iron kettle was out already and heated, and butchering was a messy business. But opinion seems to hold that in the very old days they washed clothing perhaps once a month in good weather, if that often.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, though, Monday was wash day, and the laundry soap was usually homemade lye soap. At first, water was leached through a barrel of fireplace ashes yielded lye water that was put in an iron kettle and boiled with accumulated animal fats. This made soap. When cooled, the soap hardened and was cut into blocks. This was often done in the spring as the fats would turn rancid over the summer. One batch lasted the year. I recall such soap making, but then the “Red Devil Lye” came from a can, not wood ashes. On Sunday night a small block of lye soap would be shaved into thin slices and put in a small pot with some water and left on the back of the kitchen stove to warm and soften overnight. This soft slurry was then poured into the wash water, and by all accounts it made clothes really clean. Most houses in those days had several outbuildings, and prominent among them was the wash-house.


Quoting from an article on wash day lore by Mary Russell Baver in the May, 1953 issue of The Pennsylvania Dutchman: “Most country people still do their washing in a small building close to the house known as the wash-house. The wash-house of past years ranged in size from barely large enough to hold the washing equipment and the washer woman—to a building containing an average size room. It also served other purposes besides washing depending upon its size. It was oftentimes a catch all storage place; it was used during butchering time; soap boiling was done there; harnesses were greased there in winter time, in short, a convenient place to do any little job out of the weather.”

Baver writes, “We always referred to our wash-house at home on the farm as “es heisel” meaning “little house.” It had a little attic on top which we used for a storage place for walnuts and hickory nuts. When families were large the hired men even had to sleep on the “heisel schpeicher” at times. It was pretty hot up there in summer. Many wash houses were equipped with a fire place in which hung a big black iron kettle for heating the wash water. However, if the wash house was too small to have this the housewife had to heat the water out of doors. Or some people heated it on the kitchen stove in a copper oval shaped container called a wash boiler. Later people started discontinuing using the fireplaces [in the wash-houses] and installed stoves and furnaces that were manufactured in foundries. These stoves had a big flat surface on top with a lid similar to a [kitchen] stove lid but much larger which could be removed and the big iron kettle inserted….many stoves and furnaces of this type are still used today [1953].”

“The hot water was poured into a large wooden tub which in almost every wash-house sat on an old plank chair without a back. This backless chair was called a “bortzerd”: the name for a rooster which has lost most of his tail feathers. Also into the tub went the clothes to soak, the softened soap, and of course the washboard of which type there was an endless variety.”

“As to the actual washing process itself. Some women preferred a soaking period, then scalded the wash, then started the washing in moderately hot water. Others started with the washing right away. The clothes were sorted carefully before washing began, white things on one heap on the floor in the wash-house, colored things on another heap, dirty overalls in a class by themselves.” After rinsing and hand wringing the wash was placed in a willow wash-basket for transport to the wash-line.

The 1953 Baver article goes on to note: “The evolution of washing machines was a tremendous event in the housewife’s life. I am not going to attempt to describe the first washing machine that was on the market in the Pennsylvania Dutch country as that would require even more study than time permits, and it is even doubtful if such information could be ascertained. However, most early washers consisted of a round tub with legs under it and a revolving contraption fastened to the inside of the lid which reminded one of a milking stool [the legs being agitators down in the water]. This was made to [rotate] back and forth by operating a lever on top of the lid when closed. There were soon machines with numerous styles of operation on the market. One particular one that I can remember was also operated by means of a foot peddle in addition to the lever. If there were older children in the family they too had to take turns in operating the washing machine. Later gears were put on ordinary washers, a belt was put on a pulley, and the washer was powered by a small gasoline engine. As an added convenience small gasoline engines were built right into the bottom of the washer. An exhaust pipe had to be let out through a window. There are still a few homes which are without electricity and have to depend on the gasoline motor. However, practically all people now have an electric washer in their wash-house. And modern automatic washers are creeping into more and more homes. The automatic washers and dryers will, I predict, have a great influence upon the discontinuance of Monday as wash day in the future.”

And so they have.