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Podcast Episode 52- Laundry & Hygiene Part 1

Before we talk about how the Early Settlers washed their clothes, we must first discuss their clothes. Settlers would have worn a few layers underneath their clothing – these layers were things like chemise, drawers or underwear, pantaloons, and more. These were the clothing pieces that were washed most frequently. Then there was a base layer for example, dresses, pants, or vests, that would be washed less frequently. Lastly there were the outside layers – things like aprons. Now these would be washed very frequently, and there’s a reason for that. The inside layers of their clothing got the dirtiest usually – with sweat. While their base layer remained relatively clean because the inside and outside layers would catch all the dirt.   

Soap from the store would have cost a pretty penny and in some regions, stores may have not been close by. To combat this, the hard-working pioneers had to be resourceful and learn how to make their own soap from wood ashes and waste fats. Only a few basic ingredients were needed to make soap: lye (sodium hydroxide) or sometimes potash, and animal fat. They realized it is easy to craft soap using the overflowing amount of hardwood ashes that built up in their daily fires, along with the ample amount of animal fat from the butchering of livestock. For a lot of the pioneers, soap making became a semi-annual or yearly affair on the homestead. As the butchering of livestock occurred in the fall, soap was crafted at that time on many farms and homesteads to utilize the abundant supply of lard and tallow. For the homes that did not butcher their livestock for food, soap was generally crafted in the springtime, saving the ashes from the wintertime fires and the cooking grease which they salvaged throughout the year. 

Here is a memory from Mrs. James C. Campbell of how her family made soap. 

Now that we know how soap was made, how did they use it? A big part of washing day was the water. Soap needs hot water to work, therefore, families needed to heat their wash water so that the soap could clean the laundry. Early settlers would have used a large kettle of water boiling over an open fire pit in the warmer months or on the stove/over the grate in the house during colder months. This water would be collected from nearby streams or wells with the help of shoulder yokes.  

After the tubs were filled with water and heated, a pan of homemade soap was cut into pieces or chips and added to boiling water. Clothes were then sorted and soaked in hot soapy water. The whites were washed first, then the colored clothes, and finally the dirtiest clothes. A long stick was used to stir the clothes around in the hot water and to pull the clothes out. After soaking, the clothes were scrubbed on the washboard to remove the dirt. Stains could be taken out before or during the washing process using a variety of methods. Some include milk for ink stains, butter for fruit stains, lemon juice for mildew and good old homemade soap! The clothing was rubbed up and down on the ridges of the washboard and dipped in water. This process occurred over and over until the clothes looked clean (or cleaner than they previously were anyway). This task was very hard on the arms and fingers as well as a person’s back. There were definitely some stiff backs in the 1800s. 

Wash water was reused until it was too dirty. Then more clean water had to be heated. To get out the soapsuds, the clothes were rinsed in cold water. If more than one rinse was needed two tubs were used. The clothes were then wrung out by hand or with a wringer. A wringer is essentially a crank that turns rollers and squeezes the water out of the clothes. If the settler’s arms weren’t tired enough from the washing process they will be now, as it required a lot of effort to turn the crank. Afterwards the clothing would be hung outside to dry in the sun. 

Easy right? However, not all their clothing could be simply thrown into the boiling water. Some fabrics could not be boiled, or it would ruin their clothes. Take wool for example. Many of the settlers clothing was made out of wool but could not be boiled! When washed in hot water, wool usually turns into a hard, felt like fabric if not washed rapidly in cool water. To complicate it even more, the clothing that they wore was handmade and hand dyed, meaning that the colors in their clothes would sometimes run when they scrubbed and washed it. Therefore, all the clothing would have to be sorted and washed separately based on the colors. All the light-colored clothing like white, light pink and blue was washed at once. After which the dark colored clothes like dark blue, brown, and black would be washed.  

After all the clothes had been washed and dried, there were bound to be wrinkles. These were easily rid of with the help of settler’s trusty irons. Sad irons, also known as flat irons, were a common household item in the 1800’s. The name comes from the Middle English word ‘solid’ and just like its name, these irons were made of around 5-9 pounds of SOLID cast iron. The triangular shape of irons aided in getting around buttons. To use these handy tools, they would simply be placed into a stove or fire and heated up. The temperature was very important, if it was too cold the iron would not get the wrinkles out and if too hot it could scorch the clothing. Once the iron was at the perfect temperature, it was quickly taken out and used on the desired clothing piece which sat atop a wooden ironing board. This whole ordeal had to be done quickly due to the loss of heat. You may be thinking, how was this done safely if the whole iron –including the handle- was made of solid cast iron? Well, the answer is…it wasn’t. Well not by today’s standards anyways. Many fingers and hands were often burnt. To try and avoid this, rags were used to retrieve the hot and heavy iron from the stove. Even putting the iron down was no easy task. Iron trivets were made to house the hot irons during and after the chore. At Backus-Page House Museum we have a wooden ironing board with a suspicious scorched triangle. The person who used this board could have definitely benefitted from an ironing trivet.  

As if the settler women needed more to do, they also had to keep the irons clean and smooth. Otherwise, soot could be deposited onto the fresh handwashed laundry. Did I also mention they needed to be greased to prevent rust and stains?  

Now back to some easier chores (as if there are any). With their homemade soap, settlers not only cleaned their clothing but themselves and even used it as a lubricant for wagon wheels. Let’s talk a bit about how settlers bathed.  

Bath day came once a week in the wintertime. In the summer, pioneers may rinse off in nearby creeks or rivers prior to bath day. It was a lot of work to get enough water to fill a bathtub and heat it. This is because just like washing clothes, the water they were hauling would have come from the well or stream and would be cold depending on the season. Another reason that settlers didn’t bathe very often was because of a popular myth. Some settlers believed that taking a bath would get rid of the protective oils on their skin, and if they didn’t have these oils, they were at an increased risk of getting sick. Since taking a bath was so laboursome and they didn’t believe in taking baths often, to feel clean, the settlers washed their faces and hands in a basin of cold water each morning and night. Sounds refreshing, except cold water won’t kill germs.  

When the settlers did take baths, they would have had a metal or wooden tub, likely the same one they used for laundry day. Meaning this tub was not very wide or deep. Bathrooms were not a thing in this area back then, instead, bathtubs were placed in the kitchen. This was because it would be close to the fire making it easier to fill up the tub as well as keeping each person warm after they got out. Enough water would be heated to fill the tub, then they would proceed to bathe. The entire family often used the same water. It would have been too time-consuming and laborious to empty the tub and refill it for every member of the family. The father would go first and use the cleanest water, then the mother, followed by all of the children, one at a time, oldest to youngest. There is a saying that you might have heard that goes “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” This is because the youngest children would get to take their baths last, so the water would have been very dirty. The saying developed as a funny way to remind parents that the baby could be in the tub still. 

I get it, chores no matter what they entail or how long they take are always annoying to do. However, consider how fortunate we are for the technological advancements making it easier for us to complete these tasks. Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode, we’re happy you stayed to the end!