Wash Day in Victorian Lunenburg

Home was a place of work for most women —  cooking, cleaning, sewing and the gruelling task of washing and ironing.

Washing was an onerous task that required a great deal of physically hard work with few mechanical aids.

It was only towards the end of the 19th century that washing machines as we understand them today were used in homes. There had been various inventions that would agitate soap, water and clothes but they failed because they were either uneconomic or they ruined the clothes by tangling and tearing them.

Washing machines from the mid to late 19th century were mainly of the rocking box type or the butter churn type where turning the handle tumbles the tub like a butter churn. These machines, though, were expensive and the most common way to wash clothes in Victorian times was by using a dolly in a wooden tub and attacking badly soiled items with a scrubbing board or wash board.

There were many patents issued for washing machines at this time, including one from a Mr G A Westhaver of Mahone Bay. His invention, the Housewife's Friend, was reported in the Lunenburg Progress of December 24th 1878:

The Housewife's Friend —

Mr G.A. Westhaver, of Mahone Bay, has lately received a patent for a machine bearing the above name. It is intended to lessen the labor and facilitate the work of the dreaded "wash-day". Simple in design and durable in construction, it yet does its work thoroughly and rapidly without injury to the finest fabric. It has been thoroughly tested — having been used in a few families for nearly five months — and all unite in its praise. One lady of this town, who has recently procured one, declares that she would not be without it for four times its cost. We congratulate Mr Westhaver, and hope he will meet the success his genius and enterprise deserve.

Whilst washing machines were not a common feature in homes at this time, mangles to wring the clothes out became popular in many homes from the mid 19th century.

One chore that continued into the 20th century was carrying water to the tub and outside again to discard it. Until your home had inside running water, water came from a stream or a water butt or a well. Hauling buckets up from the well was tiring work.

In the History of the County of Lunenburg, M. Desbrisay recounts the following sad event.

"In December 1865 Mrs Levi Falkenham of La Have was drowned in a well near the house. It was supposed that while drawing water she overbalanced herself and fell in."

It is not possible to know if she was hauling water for washing or cooking but it highlights one of the problems of not having water on tap.

After hauling, the water the fire had to be made and the kettle and pans put on to heat.

Then soap was needed. Because soap was expensive to buy, it was often made at home by poorer families. It was made from rendered fat, caustic soda and water. In more wealthy homes soap would be purchased from a local provisions store in the form of a bar; the soap was cut into small lumps from the bar and added to the now-hot water. A crude soap powder was available from 1863 and Sunlight soap was available by 1888, but soap flakes that would dissolve more easily in the washing water did not arrive till 1900.

Remember this is soap; detergent wasn't produced until 1946 when Tide detergent hit the market. Our poor overworked Victorian washerwomen had to put up with soap.

To Make Soap

"Put on the fire any quantity of lye you choose that is strong enough to bear an egg - to each gallon, add three quarters of a pound of clean grease; boil it very fast, and stir it frequently - a few hours will suffice to make it good soap.

When you find by cooling a little on a plate that it is a thick jelly, and no grease appears, put in salt in the proportions of one pint to three gallons - let it boil a few minutes, and pour it in tubs to cool….

Next day, cut out the soap, melt it, and cool it again; this takes out all the lye, and keeps the soap from shrinking when dried."

Randolf, Virginia Housewife, 1860.

After the washing, rinsing and wringing out, clothes were hung up to dry. If the weather was fine then the washing was carried outside in a wicker basket and hung on a line outside with wooden pegs or sometimes hung over bushes.

If it was a wet day then the clothes had to dry inside near the fire hung over a clothes horse and then the smell of wet clothes and yellow soap permeated the whole house.

But all wasn't done when the clothes were dry; they had to be ironed.

Every home would have flat irons and usually more than one as the flat iron would be heated on the stove or close to the fire. When it was hot the surface was rubbed clean - you tested the temperature by spitting on the surface. Whilst you ironed with one iron another was heating near the fire.

Another type of iron common at this time was a box iron. With this type of iron, a heated slug was placed inside and was replaced with another slug when the temperature cooled. Some box irons were heated with pieces of charcoal.

Because washing day required such extra work there were even suggestions in cookery books for cold lunches that could be brought to the table without taking too much time away from the washing chores. Here is one of the suggested menus:

Cold Lunches For Washing Days or Other Days of Extra Labour

Cold corned beef, nicely sliced
Baked potatoes
Bread & butter

followed by
Dessert — mince pie & cheese