Washday Blues – Duties of a Georgian Laundrymaid

(c) Lady Lever Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Lady Lever Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Last week we took a look at the duties of a housemaid (click the link to find out more), but if the house was large enough to warrant it, then a laundry maid would also have been employed, if not, then the role would have simply been added to the already onerous duties of the housemaid. The average annual salary for a laundry maid in 1750 was £5 (approx £450 in today’s money). In 1685 Hannah Woolley wrote a book which explained exactly what the duties of servants was; this book could still be purchased in the 1750’s for a mere 1 shilling.

The Compleat Servant Maid

The information below is taken from another fascinating book written by a Mrs William Parkes who gives clear instructions as to what an employer should expect their laundry maid to be able to do.

Before laundry is sent to be washed, laundry should be examined, and if any part require to be repaired, it should be kept back.

The housemaid/laundry maid should keep an account of the number of the articles that are sent to the laundry, and count them over on their return, to see that all are right, and well aired and should replace them in the linen-press. In putting by the fresh-washed linen, care should be taken to place it so that the whole stock may come into use in regular succession, by placing it, for instance, under the rest of the linen, or at the back of the press.

Tate; (c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Tate; (c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

If the linen be put damp into the linen-closet, it will be mildewed, and stains produced which cannot easily be removed. A good maid will manage her work in so methodical a manner, that she will never either feel or appear to be hurried. Every day in the week will have its allotted portion of the weekly cleaning; by which means no one day will be surcharged with work, so as to occasion bustle or annoyance in the family. The drawing-room, the dining-room, and the library, she should contrive to clean thoroughly at those times in which the family are absent.

I would certainly advise you to procure one who has been accustomed to the business of the laundry, as that is not a department which you can yourself superintend ; nor can a housekeeper do so to any great extent, without neglecting some of her other avocations. Your eyes will quickly tell you if she wash the linen clean, and get up fine muslin tolerably well. If this should not be the case, you must, certainly, notice it directly, or the colour of your linen will be injured.

Young woman ironing – Louis-Léopold Boilly, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One thing you must remember, that your laundry should have every convenience to facilitate the work. The wash-house should be well supplied with soft water, boilers, and tubs. A washing machine saves labour, but I believe that the clothes are not so well washed as by the hand; and some imagine that it wears out the linen, and tears it.

In the laundry there should be a good stove (for the double purpose of heating the irons and airing the linen), and also a mangle.

Muslins and light things should be washed in clean water, as their colour cannot be preserved if any other apparel have been, previously, washed in the water. I am convinced that the laundry-maid would much more easily preserve the good colour of her linen, and-linen spare her own hands, if she changed the water more frequently, although it might occasion a greater expenditure of soap. Flannels are sometimes washed in cold water, mixed with ox or sheep gall; but this is the old-fashioned mode, and many ladies now prefer to have them washed in clean hot water. The colour of flannel is entirely lost if it be washed in water in which anything else has been previously rinsed.

A_laundry_maid_leaning_out_of_a_sash_window_to_wring_out_a_Wellcome_L0051348
Courtesy of Wellcome Trust

Besides the essential articles of soap, blue, and starch, the laundry-maid should always have a supply of salt of lemon, citrate of potash, and bleaching liquid, with which to remove inkspots, iron-moulds, or other stains from the linen before it is washed.

The quantity of soap used in a week’s wash may be reckoned at the rate of half a pound per head; which includes the washing of the household linen as well. The quantity of starch depends, of course, upon the number of articles to be starched. Sometimes it is fashionable to have muslin dresses starched and when table linen is worn and thin, a little starch improves their appearance, by giving them something of the consistency of new linen.

 

The Laundress Jean-Baptiste Greuze courtesy of Getty Museum
The Laundress Jean-Baptiste Greuze courtesy of John Paul Getty Museum

Some laundry-maids are so careless as to tear the linen in stirring it while boiling, making use of any rough stick they can find; and, also, sometimes to permit the water in the copper to get very low, by which means the linen is liable to be scorched by the fire. Such negligence should always be reproved. Soap is an article very easily wasted by a careless servant, and it requires some vigilance, either in the housekeeper or in the mistress of a family, to prevent it. When the quantity used weekly has been ascertained, it should be weighed out for each washing, nor should the laundry-maid be permitted to.

lwlpr21540 washing mill
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Needless to say occasionally accidents happened!

Dowager Lady Walpole
Lloyd’s Evening Post , October 10, 1764 – October 12, 1764

 

Earl of Shelburn
General Evening Post, July 28, 1739 – July 31, 1739

Our final offering on the subject of laundry maids comes from the Daily Advertiser , Thursday, September 27, 1744.

Corpulent

Sources

https://archive.org/stream/domesticdutiesor00park_0#page/n0/mode/2up

http://www.arleyhallarchives.co.uk/staff.htm

http://www.pascalbonenfant.com/18c/wages.html

Public Advertiser,  Friday, November 11, 1757

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11 thoughts on “Washday Blues – Duties of a Georgian Laundrymaid

  1. Lovely article, though I shouldn’t like to employ many of the girls in the pictures as laundry maids! Of course there has to be artistic licence, but I was much amused as I HAVE done laundry by hand. The first seems diligent enough [I used the same pic on my own blog about laundry], the second is too busy smirking at the artist to note where she’s soaping heavy stains [and moreover she’d have more joy if the cloth were stretched where it’s stained, not crumpled up like that]; the third has taken her eye off the iron and if it’s not too cold to use, she’s going to have a scorch mark in her linen there! I’m not quite sure what the third one thinks she’s up to, but let’s assume the cloth is dry and she’s loading the copper rather lackadaisically one item at a time. And the next is going to soak her own skirt especially when she lifts the clothing to wring. A patent wringer is certainly a labour-saving device, hand wringing for even a modest family wash in winter leaves the hands sore and chapped, and sometimes bleeding with the effort, and a hand wring never gets as much water out as a mechanical wringer.
    Iron mould is rust, by the way, and it is removed with lemon juice or some other citrus preparation. You can shift almost all stains with a combination of one or more out of: salt, bicarbonate of soda, white wine vinegar or lemon juice. Nice tip about starching the table-linen though as old linen goes almost grey with age.
    My great great grandmother was a laundress, and she took in washing. She also kept the village ‘whites bag’ with loan items for women lying in, as few had spare sheets to change the bed once they had birthed [salt in cold water overnight for bloodstains] or more than one night rail to wear, and nothing to wrap the baby in. It was a very poor community and my great great gran doubled as the midwife.

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    1. All Things Georgian

      As always Sarah, thank you so very much for your detailed comments – brilliant and very much appreciated. Totally agree with you – we wouldn’t employ any of them, as you say though artistic licence.
      Some of the remedies suggested work just as well today as they did back then, especially the use of salt and cold water to remove bloodstains. 🙂

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    2. Very interesting read from the ladies of the site, but I especially liked your comment about your grandmother’s loan bag… I never thought about the need for that, although I am certainly not surprised to learn it… Very neat that you have these stories from so long ago.

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      1. My great gran led a colourful life, nearly drowning in the river when she was 7 [and chasing her brothers home with a stick because they just stood on the bank crying ‘Oh Lottie!’], dealing with a would-be rapist by biting his manhood when she was 13, and making friends with the local gypsies, who rewarded her with herbal curing recipes I still use. I plan to write her biography one day… I was a sickly child [rheumatic fever] and my great aunt, her daughter, would amuse me when I was too ill to read [a frustrating experience] by telling me stories of her mother’s adventures. It’s a window onto a lost world…

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