Before the days of electricity and the evolution of washing machines, laundry was a back-breaking, difficult task. It took several days of hot, heavy work to clean clothes and linens. Whether the work was handled by the woman of the house or her servants, laundry was one of the hardest jobs in the household.
Doing laundry was, at best, a three to four day process for each load of clothes involving eight steps.
Mending by hand
Before washing, every garment had to be inspected for holes or rips as washing could make the problems much worse. As with clothing construction, all mending and patching was done by hand. Discarding clothing was not done unless the garment was completely unrepairable. At that point, any usable fabric was salvaged to make quilts or for use in other household chores.
Presoaking and stain removal
Women soon discovered that soaking the clothes before washing would make the job of scrubbing and cleaning the clothes much easier. Clothes were soaked in warm water usually for one day. During this time, stains like blood, grease and food were treated. All of the stain removal treatments were done using homemade products like grain alcohol, acid from fruits, salt and pastes made of talc that would absorb grease.
Washing and scrubbing in hot water
The next day, fresh water was heated to a temperature as hot as the woman could bear to put her hands into either over an open fire or on a cooktop. The clothes were turned inside out and lye soap was applied to the clothes. Next was the hardest step, scrubbing the clothes on a washboard. The washboard began as just a smooth board or surface that women would beat or rub the clothes on to help loosen soil. Someone discovered that cutting grooves in the surface gave better scrubbing results. From wood, washboards progressed to zinc and even glass.
Each piece of laundry was scrubbed until it was deemed as clean as possible. The woman would then wring out the soapy water and set the piece aside.
Boiling and rinsing
After each piece of laundry was scrubbed, water was heated to boiling and the clothes were boiled to kill "critters" (lice). The clothes had to be removed with a laundry stick. They were then rinsed in cool water to remove any traces of the lye soap.
Bluing of white items
Lye soap and impurities in the water left white clothes looking very dingy and yellow. To help whiten clothes, powders or blocks made from indigo or Prussian blue pigments were tied into several pieces of cloth. The cloth was then dipped in the water to turn it sky blue. The clothes were soaked in the blue colored water. Bluing is still used today to whiten dingy clothes.
Drying was done, of course, outside in the sunshine or inside by the fire. Some were lucky enough to use a rope as a clothesline but many clothes were just spread on the clean grass or bushes to dry. A good laundry woman knew to roll the clothes into a light roll while they were still slightly damp to make ironing easier.
Ironing was done by heating heavy forged iron irons and pressing them down on the fabric. The irons had no temperature control and the handles were not insulated. As the iron lost heat, it had to be reheated to continue the task. The lucky woman had at least two irons to complete the task. If the woman did not have a cook stove, she heated the iron in a clean frying pan set on the fire grate. This would keep the bottom clean and free from ashes that would stain the clothes.
To give clothes a crisp finish, women made their own starch mixture. Starch was made from wheat flour, potatoes, gum Arabic and even from coffee for dark fabrics. The mixture and consistency had to be perfect or the heat would "cook" the starch into the fabric. After ironing, clothes were allowed to cool before they were put away. This airing out prevented mildew in case there were still damp spots on the clothes.
All of the clothes were folded to store in a trunk or box to prevent them from getting dirty from dust and dirt. There were no hangers or closets to protect clothes.
The basic equipment needed for laundry were two 25-gallon oak tubs (each weighed about 35 pounds when empty), buckets, iron cauldrons for heating water, fire grates, scrub boards, homemade soap, bluing, ropes for clothes lines, irons and sewing supplies.
After the work was finished the tools had to be cared for and kept in good shape. Replacements were hard to acquire. The wooden tubs and buckets leaked if they were left to dry for too long, so they had to be soaked to keep them watertight. However, the water had to be changed often because if left too long, the wood became slimy and rotted. Irons had to be stored standing up to keep the bottoms smooth, clean, and free of rust. Wax was placed on the irons to keep them from rusting.
And, each year the woman had to make her own soap by rendering animal fat and adding lye. Soap making was a day long process of stirring the soap while it "cooked" over an open fire. A large pot of soap would usually last for a year but some families had to make soap twice per year. Most made it in the fall after animals were butchered.
For women who lived in settled areas with a larger population, laundry was a social time when they could visit with each other. For most, it was a solitary, back-breaking work.