Laundry: A Brief History of Washing

Washing clothes has been a complicated task for centuries. During Victorian times, this was a time – and energy – consuming activity, which took place in washhouses like this one, usually located in the courtyard or garden and often used by multiple families at one time in communal dwellings. Households would have to produce their own soap and rely on rainwater supplies. Washing required an enormous amount of physical effort as washing machines were not available until the 1880s and even then, were far from being efficient and were only affordable by a few.

Clothes and linen would be sorted long before washing day and left to soak in warm water with lye, to be whitened and cleansed. They would then be thrown in a metal washtub and repeatedly pressed with an item called a ‘dolly’ (made of wood and shaped as a three-leg stool mounted on a broomstick) or a ‘posser’ (made of metal and shaped as a cone with holes at the base), to force the dirt out of the fabrics. Afterwards, they were rubbed with soap and wrung twice, before being immersed in boiling soapy water and wrung again manually, or with the aid of a mangle.

Once thoroughly rinsed in fresh water and wrung one last time, items were ready to be transferred to the drying area. Garments were spread on bushes and hedges, or freely hung on clotheslines. Even present-day commodities like pegs and indoor drying racks, were rarely used before the 19th century! After drying, clothes and linen were ready for ironing.

To avoid repeating this lengthy process, clothes could often be left dirty for weeks. As a general rule, only items made of linen and cotton were washed, such as underwear, bed-sheets, tablecloths and day-to-day clothing: delicate garments made of silk and wool could not be washed in the traditional way, and simply had to be brushed or dry-cleaned.


Soap is first mentioned as cleansing product in Babylonian inscriptions dating back to 2800 BC. Archaeological evidence also suggests that the Egyptians and later the Romans, used to wash their bodies and textiles with soap. At that time and for many centuries onwards, soap was usually made by mixing together an acid (such as animal tallow) and an alkali (wood ashes). The thick compound which resulted from the mixing process (called ‘saponification’) was then dried in bars and cut into cakes, ready for use.

Over the course of history, other materials were used, as a replacement for the all-too-precious animal fat. Following on from the discoveries of the early Arabic chemists, people in Italy and France began to produce soap made with vegetable and aromatic oil (olive or thyme) in the 12th century. By the 15th century, the first soap factories were built in Britain as well.

It was not until the late 18th century, with the chemical discoveries of Nicholas Leblanc and Eugene-Michel Chevreul, that soap began to be industrially manufactured. However, in the 19th century, the majority of households in rural areas were still making their laundry soap the old-fashioned way, with the only difference in the treatment of ashes, now boiled in water to obtain a substance called ‘lye’. In order to be prevented from becoming rancid, animal fat had to be ‘rendered’ through boiling into an equal quantity of water and solidified, before being stored away.

Bars of commercial, branded soap that are so familiar to us now, only became available at the turn of the 20th century, together with a range of alternatives, such as powdered soap or soap flakes. The first synthetic detergent was introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1933 and from then, non-soap commercial detergents have taken over the market. The soap-making process has developed considerably since and has become a modern industry in its own sense. With concerns over environmental sustainability in the 21st century, the production of the first biodegradable and ‘green’ detergents began.

‘Pressing’ Matters: Irons and Ironing

Ironing clothes with hot metal pans most likely developed in China a thousand years ago. Hand-size stones and glass linen smoothers were widely used across Europe before the advent of the first metal ‘flat’ irons in the late Middle Ages. The so-called ‘flat’ or ‘sad’ irons (an old word for solid) could weigh up to 5 kilograms and had to be carefully heated on a stove before being pressed on the clothes. These continued to be used far into the 19th century, when ironing was still an arduous job that required an entire day of work.

Before the 1860s, when folding ironing boards were patented in the United States, damp clothes were spread on a kitchen table or boards supported by chairs. Over time, many types of ironing boards, suitable for different garments, were made available on the market. The ironing surface had to be covered with a thick flannel blanket, called ‘swanskin’, with an extra sheet on top. Before being passed on clothes, irons had to be sand-polished and thoroughly cleaned. The laundry-maid could then heat them on the stove but not too much, to avoid smearing or scorching the textiles.


Unknown SAAPT 2008.249a


Petrol Iron 20th cent.

At the turn of the 20th century new technologies became available. Petrol smoothing irons were self-heated with petrol, kerosene or paraffin gas and made ironing much easier for laundry-maids and housekeepers. The fuel flowed from the spherical reservoir into the iron’s body, where it burned and heated the iron’s sole. Petrol irons enjoyed great popularity well into the 1920s, despite the concurrent use of electrical irons, patented in 1883. They were often coated with a layer of coloured enamel, like the one on display, to look more appealing.


Bugolette SAAPT 1993.005


‘Bugolette’ Travel Iron 20th cent.

Portable travel irons, also called ‘boudoir’ irons, began to be manufactured in the 20th century to cater for the needs of an increasingly mobile population. Usually they were sold together with a box of ‘meta’ (methylated spirit) tablets that had be placed on a pan under the body, in order to heat it.


Unknown SAAPT 2003.241


Goffering Iron 19th cent.

Goffering irons, also called Italian, were already used in the 17th century to iron frilled cuffs and collars, which were fashionable at that time, without flattening them. A hot metal rod was inserted in the horizontal tube at the top, in order to heat it. Frilled textiles were then rolled and curled around the hot cylinder, so they could take the desired shape. In Victorian times, it was a sign of social distinction to be able to exhibit perfectly-ironed ruffles.


Unknown SAAPT 2003.005


Baby Clothes Iron 20th cent.

Portable irons reduced in size and weight, were used in the 19th century to iron baby clothes and other small garments. Like the bigger ‘sad’ or ‘flat’ irons, they were meant to be heated on a kitchen stove and then pressed onto clothes.


Unknown SAAPT 1988.049


Laundry Scoop Unknown

Metal scoop used to add water and soap.


Unknown, Albert SAAPT TN507, TN514


Washboards 19th cent.

Although it is not clear when wooden washboards were invented, they became widely popular in households across Europe throughout the 19th century, replacing the ‘washing bats’, used until then to beat the dirt out of the laundry. Women would soak clothes in washtubs filled with hot soapy water and energetically rub them against the washboard’s ribbed surface – an arduous and tiring job. Clothes were then rinsed and prepared for the next steps, boiling, a final rinsing and ironing. Over time, more models became available on the market. Metal washboards with ribbed zinc were first patented in the United States by Mr Rust in 1833, while glass washboards made their appearance sometime before 1877.


Unknown SAAPT 1996.085


Laundry Wooden Tongs Unknown

Metal or wooden tongs began to be mass-produced in Victorian times, replacing the long wooden ‘dolly-sticks’. These would be used to remove clothes from boiling water, once washing was finished and to transfer them to a cold rinsing tub.


Unknown SAAPT 1989.210


Washing Bowl 19th cent.

This hand-painted washing bowl, which dates to the 1860s and was manufactured in Glasgow, was most likely accompanied by a jug decorated with the same intricate motif, the Hawthorn Blossom Pattern. The name descends from the entangling hawthorn sprays that characterise the motif, originally exploited by Chinese painters in the decoration of porcelain vases. Similar patterns were particularly fashionable in late 19th century Britain, and can often be seen on locally manufactured ceramic and porcelain items, such as serving bowls, saucers and other dishes.


Journal of Laundry Notes SAAPT 2016.032a

In the 20th century it was customary for women to note down in a journal their cooking recipes and laundry tips for future reference, since many of the activities involved in washing and cooking required a good deal of specific knowledge and practice. This notebook belonged to a resident of St Andrews and is filled with annotations on culinary experiments and laundry practices, as well as newspaper clippings with advertisements, recipes and other trivia. From this, you can learn how to make soap, remove gravy stains from clothes, perfectly iron skirts and ruffles and keep the linens whiter than white. Journals such as this represent an invaluable first-hand source of information on domestic economy and day-to-day life in the past century.


Unknown SAAPT TN517


Metal Carpet Beater Unknown

Before the advent of vacuum cleaners, carpets had to be washed and beaten manually by the maid-of-all-work. Carpets were hung on wooden poles or washing lines outside and then beaten on both sides with wooden or wire sticks with intricately woven heads. In order to remove dust and dirt, carpets had to be hit with force and for a considerable length of time, making this task exhausting and unpleasant. Carpets would then be swept with an apposite broom and left hanging until the evening, when they could finally be taken down and folded.


Bagwash Leaflet from SAAPT 2013.004

Woodburn Steam Laundry

In the early 1900s, people of modest income who could not afford a private washhouse and related staff, often relied on the ‘bagwash’ service offered by many city laundries. For a small fee, bags of dirty linen and clothes were washed separately and returned damp to their owners, who would then work through the drying and ironing. The leaflet advertises this service at the ‘low cost of Two Shillings and Sixpence’, and ensures cotton bags are provided onsite. It concludes with a significant appeal to all housekeepers: ‘Think what it saves you in work, worry, servant troubles, and above all – in money’.


Box of Laundry Starch and TN 552, TN 502

Bag of Laundry Blue

As part of the laundry equipment, starch obtained from vegetables has been in use at least since the 15th century. However, it only gained importance in the 16th century, when elaborate ruffs and fluted collars became fashionable and had to be stiffened. During the 19th and early 20th century, mass-produced starch was still sprinkled over clean clothes to stiffen collars, sleeves and ruffles whilst they were being ironed. ‘Robin Starch’, manufactured by Reckitt’s, was one of the best known brands in Britain.

Before modern detergents with colour brighteners were made available for purchase, it was common practice to stir into the final rinse a tiny bag of the so-called ‘laundry blue’, a whitening powder made of baking soda and synthetic ultramarine pigment. Bags of laundry blue produced by Reckitt’s, became extremely popular in Britain throughout the 19th century and were used in royal laundries as well. Factory-made products replaced previous natural blue obtained by mixing indigo pigments with starch.


Mangles and Wringers SAAPT 1998.229, 2002.111, 2016.006

The first horizontal box mangles were patented in the 18th century and were intended to help smoothing (or ‘ironing’) linens and clothes. However, in 19th century Britain, a ‘mangle’ became synonymous with ‘wringer’ – a machine designed to squeeze water out of wet clothes after washing. Clothes and linen were placed between the rollers, which could be turned by moving the gear on the side. Not all washing had to be mangled however, as only straight items such as sheets, tablecloths and napkins were intended for its use. The mangles on display are an upright design, patented around the 1820s, in order to save space and be easier to use. As the century progressed, improved models became available with many combining the smoothing and wringing function.

Below the cupboard, a 1950s white wringer from the Glasgow-based company ACME testifies to the popularity of such utensils well into the 20th century.


20th Century Soap SAAPT TN112, TN110, 1191.101, 2003.003

Soaps manufactured by ‘Lux’, a company founded in 1899 by the Lever Brothers (now Unilever), became incredibly popular in the 1920s amongst United States and British consumers thanks to cutting-edge advertising strategies. Their products ranged from disinfectant laundry soaps, like ‘Sunlight’ and ‘Lifebuoy’, to toilet soaps such as the world-famous ‘Lux Beauty Soap’, greatly enjoyed by women for its beautifying properties. At one point, it was marketed as a luxury skin purifier used by celebrities and royalties all over the world.

Other firms were active in the field too. Established in 1770 in London as a flourishing soap and perfumery business, Yardley’s success peaked during the Victorian era, when its range of English Lavender Soaps began to be exported to the United States. Much like Lux Beauty Soaps, they were marketed as toilet soaps designed to give every woman’s skin a gorgeously smooth and silky texture.


Laundry Detergents SAAPT 2000.078, TN504

There were no detergents at the turn of the century. Soap flakes and powder only began to be mass-produced in the 1920s and 1930s but quickly became popular. Lux Soap Flakes were marketed as strong on stains and dirt, but delicate on fabrics and skin – so delicate, that women could even use them as shampoo! The flakes just had to be added to washing water, so that they would melt and become foamy.

This bottle of Bubbly Stergene soap, sold by Unilever in the 1940s, illustrates the evolution of laundry detergents throughout the 20th century. Liquid soap, patented in 1865 but only mass-produced after the turn of the 20th century, quickly became a familiar presence in many households across Britain, especially after the introduction of automatic washing machines in the late 1950s.

Pegs and Peg Dolls

Long before the invention of plastic, clothes pegs were hand-made by craftsmen working with wood, or by members of the gypsy communities who sold them door by door. In order to craft the perfect peg, a stick of willow had to be cut to suitable length and shaved until the shape of a head appeared on top. A strip of tin, most likely cut out of an ordinary can, was then wrapped around the stick, just below the head. Finally, the stick was split in two with a knife up to the tin belt, giving birth to the so-called ‘split peg’.

In Victorian times, most children toys were still expensive and as such, amongst poorer families it was common practice for children to play with hand-crafted peg dolls. These were nothing more than ordinary clothes pegs provided with hand-painted faces and ‘dressed up’ in scraps of cloth and trinkets. A maximum result at the lowest expense!

Charter and Bee Boles in St Andrews

In the Old Scottish language, a ‘bole’ was a small, squared recess carved in a wall to be used as a place of deposit. A variety of things could be placed in such boles from documents, to books and food. ‘Charter’ boles were usually found in the walls between adjoining properties, in order to hold charter documents clarifying the ownership of each property. These were slightly larger than ‘bee’ boles, often found in walled gardens and orchards. These cavities were designed to protect skeps (straw beehives) from wind and rain so bees could safely produce honey and beeswax. It is estimated that more than 50 charter and bee boles, are disseminated across St Andrews. Have you found any?