Monday, 26 September 2011

Washing Day

I was recently without a washing machine for a while. I'd forgotten what life was like before automatic washing machines; how one had to plan what to wear when, because you couldn't just wash something and have it ready to wear again a day or two later; how time consuming washing by hand was; how we had to hope for a fine day to get everything dry (if one had outdoor space to hang things out; otherwise they dripped in the bathroom for days.)

I started thinking about how my young Victorian woman character would do her laundry in about 1880.  She is single and lives alone in London in a rented room. She wouldn't be able to wash more than stockings and handkerchiefs there.

Heavy outer garments, made of wool, weren't washed They were brushed and hung up to air. Stains might be sponged or dabbed with a stain remover.

That left cotton and linen items - dresses, petticoats, underwear, nightgowns, sheets, pillowcases, towels. My character would not have more than two of any of these, three at the most, and not more than one in the wash in any week.

There might be a wash house attached to the house where she lived, or at the end of the street. There would be a copper to heat water, washtubs and a mangle. But my character has a job. I don't think she'd want the trouble of getting fuel, heating water and doing the washing herself. I think she'd have it done for her.

She would have plenty of options.  Laundress was one of the most common recorded occupations for women in the nineteenth century censuses.

Some would have worked for the commercial laundries, which operated on a large scale by about 1880.

The Beulah Laundry and Cleaning Works, in South Lambeth Road, offered its services to families, club houses, hotels, ships &c.

The Sunny Bank Laundry Company, Langley Lane, South Lambeth, guaranteed that no chemicals, soap powder or other injurious compounds were used. Linen was well rinsed and 'quite free from the usual odour.'  

Women did not only do the washing in these commercial laundries; Mrs E. J. Chapple managed the London and Provincial Steam Laundry in Battersea. 

There were also many women who took washing into their homes, returning it the following week. Women such as Mrs Harriet Cripps of 444 Old Ford Road, Bow, or Mrs Eliza Blake of  82 Deacon Street, Walworth, or Miss Mary A. Clarke of 113 Bramley Road, Notting Hill. There was a choice of French laundresses too, such as Madame Angelique Pemmers of 11 Dorset Street, Portman Square.

But I think it's most likely that my character would have an arrangement with a neighbour, whereby her laundry is included in that woman's household wash.  No money changes hands; my character repays the favour by helping the neighbour in some way.

A character's laundry arrangements don't usually need to be described in detail in a novel. But asking such apparently trivial and irrelevant questions can help to build up a picture of the world a character lives in, how she interacts with her community, what particular skills and abilities she might have and use in her day to day life.

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