Laundry in the 1850s
This will be the first in a series of posts about the Household Arts of the 1850s. If you have a topic you’d like us to cover, please leave a comment or contact us!
Tools for doing the laundry in the 1850s
In the days before electricity and washing machines, doing the laundry was a time consuming and physically demanding job. During the early gold rush days new arrivals had to carry any washing tools they wanted all the way to the diggings. Consequently many diggers didn’t enjoy the luxury of properly washed clothes.
Once people become more settled on the goldfields, particularly as more women arrived, more washing tools would have arrived too. Washboards and homemade soap would have served the basic needs of most people.
For those well-to-do households (meaning they have a house rather than a hut or tent!) they may have splashed out on a laundry room. Usually detached from the house because of all the steam that washing would produce, a top-notch laundry would contain a large copper and a couple of troughs. You can see one such laundry in Speedwell Street here at Sovereign Hill.
Learning about laundry in the 1850s
Washing clothes was a tough reality of life that gives an insight into the differents between lifestyles then and now. In the great BBC documentary Victorian Farm, Ruth Goodman suggests rising at about 4am to begin work on washing day – work that would take all day with the exception of breaks for making food. Dirty loads of laundry should be dollied (twisted and turned by hand using a wooden dollie) for 45-60 minutes. In Ruth’s washing day, she had to shift about 58 buckets of water!
There would have been a lucky few ladies who would have had their own laundry-maid. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, the foremost household guide of the Victorian era, describes the duties of the laundry-maid and the ideal laundry set-up. The book can be found online.
Learning about the practicalities of the average person’s daily-life in the 1850’s is almost guaranteed to dampen any romanticism about ‘life in the good old days’. For students, it can be a powerful way to understand differences between now and then, and appreciate the developments in technology.
You can find out some more about the history of laundry here. For more about Victorian Farm (a show and book we highly recommend) you can read this Wikipedia entry or this article.
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An interesting Blog. The life of women was much more difficult before electricity and running water.
I am writing a book and wonder how laundry was done in large facilities in 1850, like prisons or workhouses. Any reference would be greatly appreciated.
Hi there. As we don’t have access to our onsite library right now on account of C19, I can’t direct you to any references that you wouldn’t have already found online. But did you read https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2014/10/29/ten-1850s-inventions-and-innovations/ and https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2016/04/22/in-praise-of-washing-machines/ and https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2020/04/24/women-on-the-goldfields-part-3-working-in-the-home/? These posts all contain some information on washing technologies – domestic and industrial.