Tag Archives: Household Arts

In praise of washing machines

full washing equip

An 1850s ‘washing machine’.

Many historians believe that the invention of electricity was the most important nineteenth century invention because it changed women’s lives dramatically. In the 1850s, there was no electricity and therefore no electric washing machine. What did this mean for those charged with washing the family’s clothes?

Nineteenth century gender roles, meaning the different kinds of jobs men and women were expected to do, were very strict – men worked outside the home in the ‘public’ world, while women worked inside the home in the ‘private’ world. Activities like working in mines or participating in politics were supposed to be performed by men, while taking care of the children and doing the family cooking and cleaning were activities performed by women. Nowadays, it is more common that all jobs, whether it’s mowing the lawn, making money from working in a factory or supermarket, or ironing clothes, are done by both men and women.

soap making

A tallow melting pan and a soap mold from the 1850s.

Washing clothes was a woman’s job in the 1850s. It required some very simple technologies: a large tub (bucket), a washboard, and some soap. Here, on the early diggings, most soap was homemade using tallow (which, in Ballarat, was sheep fat) mixed with some ash. Water had to be collected from creeks and lakes by bucket and was then heated over a fire. When Ballarat became a more established city, wealthier households built laundries in their gardens and installed ‘coppers’ (big copper buckets built over fireplaces) and garden water pumps (utilising underground ‘bore’ water) to make this work easier, but women still spent at least one entire day every week washing the family’s clothes.


A laundry copper.

Have you ever heard the expression ‘She mangled her finger’? This comes from a clothes washing technology called a mangle. At first, these rollers, through which clothes would be squeezed near-dry, were hand-cranked, but when electric mangles were introduced many people (including children!) got their hands and hair caught in these machines with disastrous results. Thankfully, some of the most dangerous designs were outlawed. However, this wasn’t the only hazard to washer women. Irons made of heavy cast-iron were heated on the fireplace and then used to smoothe fabric. Modern irons are very safe in comparison! Women could easily burn themselves with 1850s irons, and getting serious burns (before antibiotics were invented) sometimes resulted in gangrene, blood poisoning and even death!


A 19th century mangle, also known as a wringer.

Until the electric washing machine became a common household appliance in the 1950s, women dedicated large amounts of their lives to washing, rinsing, wringing-out, drying, and ironing clothes. Some academics, like Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, believe that the electric washing machine was ‘the greatest invention of the Industrial Revolution’ because it suddenly afforded women time for things like education, work outside the home, and politics, once the washing machine was introduced. Can you think of any other inventions which have had a similarly big impact on people’s lives?

Links and references

A brief history of the washing machine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washing_machine

A history of laundry: http://www.oldandinteresting.com/history-of-washing-clothes.aspx

A brief history of the mangle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangle_(machine)

A history of irons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clothes_iron

A history of antibiotics and infection: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/treatments/Pages/The-History-of-Antibiotics.aspx

A teacher resource on ‘Laundry in the 19th Century’: http://www.ebparks.org/Assets/files/Laundry_19th_Century_06-01-09.pdf


Household Arts of the 1850s: A personal experience part 3.

The Woman of the Hill part 3.

Jenni enjoying a lighter moment from her stay

Jenni enjoying a lighter moment from her stay

Our intrepid volunteer, Jenni Fithall, has completed her three days and two nights living in one of the cottages at Sovereign Hill Outdoor Museum.  During her stay approximately 3800 visitors, including about 1500 school children  came to Sovereign Hill. Many of these visitors and children visited Jenni in her cottage, so apart from living as a woman of the 1850s, Jenni also had to contend with a multitude of questions, photo opportunities and a constant stream of people walking through her little two room cottage. Continue reading

Household Arts of the 1850s: a personal experience part 2; the first night

Woman of the Hill 2

Jenni doing the dishes and talking to visitors

Jenni doing the dishes and talking to visitors

The first night of intrepid volunteer Jenni Fithall’s experiment with colonial living is over and we (two of the Education officers) called in to check up on her.

Sovereign Hill:

Morning Jenni, how did you sleep?


Terribly! The rooster started crowing at about 3.30 am, and all the rest joined in. They would stop for about 20 minutes, and I would drift off to sleep. Then they would start again. It was nice laying in bed watching the glow from the fire.


Any other excitement overnight?


Well I had a bath. It took for ever to warm up enough water for it. I set the bath up in here (Kitchen/Dining room). I now know why they (Colonial people) only bathed once a week, it was so much work, and that’s only for one person!


We notice there’s a lot of flies around, do you need another fly strip? (The one hanging from the ceiling, is covered with flies, and there is still a swarm flying around the room).


No I have a spare one. Marion (Education officer) and I put one up about 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon, but last night the ceiling was black with flies. (They are really bad, no wonder disease was rife in these communities)

Jenni is cooking her breakfast, some sliced potato and an egg over the fire. She has some other food cooked from yesterday covered with tea towels, at least it is quiet as the Museum is not open to visitors yet.


Do you expect many visitors today?


Oh yes, there was a constant flow of people coming in yesterday. And there are plenty of school children staying at the museum so I expect I will be very busy talking to visitors and completing all my chores.

If you would like your students to experience a little of Jenni’s experience, try our a woman’s work is never done education session.

For more information about women on the Goldfields, you could try the Gold museum Blog about Eliza Perrin or our earlier Blogs.

If you would like to see what Jenni went through, we have made several videos about her time at Sovereign Hill, and the links are detailed below.

Woman of the Hill part 1

Woman of the Hill part 2

Woman of the Hill part 3

Woman of the Hill making butter

Woman of the Hill, the final interview

There was so much information about this experiment, that we created a new page on our website. All the videos and links to Blogposts are here.

Household Arts of the 1850’s: A personal experience

Woman of the Hill

Ever wondered what it would be like to have lived during the 19th Century? Would you like to experience it for yourself? Well you don’t have to, because we have someone to do it for you. Jenni Fithall is a volunteer at Sovereign Hill Museum, Ballarat. She belongs to the “Friends of Sovereign Hill” (FOSH), a group that helps to bring the Museum to life for visitors.

Sovereign Hill Volunteer Jenni Fithall, who will be living in one of our cottages for 3 days in March 2013

Sovereign Hill Volunteer Jenni Fithall, who will be living in one of our cottages for 3 days in March 2013

Jenni has decided to try living in one of the cottages on Speedwell St for two nights and three days in March. Our Education Officers recently interviewed Jenni, to find out how she felt about her upcoming adventure. Continue reading

Household Arts of the 1850s: Sweeping, Beating and Scrubbing

The Household Arts: Sweeping, Beating and Scrubbing

Keeping the floors clean in the 1850s was a never-ending challenge!  On the golfields, the early arrivals had to contend with the most basic of dwellings: tents and timbers huts, most of which had dirt floors.  Some enterprising families and businesses would use crushed quartz for flooring as it was found to be a good way to avoid flea infestations.  Even in the later years of the gold rush, many diggers would still live in huts and tents, allowing them to save their money and move on quickly as new leads were discovered.

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Household Arts of the 1850s: Ironing

The Household Arts: Ironing

This is another in a series of posts about the Household Arts during the 19th century.  You can also read our first post about Laundry and our second about drying clothes here.  If you have a topic you’d like us to cover, please leave a comment or contact us!

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Household Arts in the 1850s: Laundry (Drying)

Hanging Clothes out to Dry in the 1850s

Melanie wrote to ask to ask what people used for clothes lines and pins in the 1850s, so we thought we’d share some information and photos about clothes drying methods from years gone by.

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Household Arts of the 1850s: Laundry

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!

Student trying old washing methods at Sovereign Hill

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.

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