White collar work: doing the laundry

The northern Italian city of Genoa has announced a plan to ban hanging washing out of the windows of the streets of the old town.  How daft is this?  To me, those strings of washing hanging across the narrow streets are one of the most iconic images of Italy, a  delight to paint – and an environmentally sensible way of drying clothing.  La Stampa is equally outraged:

Of course dirty laundry should be washed inside. But clean and fresh smelling laundry hanging on the balcony or in the windows should at least be accepted as part of the Italian landscape, if not even as immaterial world heritage. The historical city centres are being dissolved, real estate speculation has turned them into luxury residencies, pied-à-terres, offices, studios and ateliers. The poorer segments of the population have been driven out. And all they can worry about is the washing? The air is more polluted than ever, bronchitis, asthma, allergies being the least of the consequences, and traffic is on the rampage. But the mayor is worrying about underwear flapping in the wind and about bikes leaning against the facades of the houses.

It’s time to think seriously about the laundry, to stop hiding our dirty linen, and to let it all hang out.  Washing clothes and household linen is one of the most basic activities, yet because it is almost invariably women’s work, it is seldom recognized for the hard work it is (or at least was) and for its importance, not just to our comfort, but to our health.  Because it usually occurs within the household, it is not counted in national statistics, yet the history of washing says a great deal about the development of class and status: without white collars, there would be no white collar workers.

Throughout human history, most washing has been done on the riverbank, preferably somewhere where the clothes can be beaten against rocks.  Agitation is enough to clean most clothing, even in cold river water, but soap helps.  Anyone who has gone camping knows the basic recipe: throw ashes from the cooking fire into the greasy pan and the combination of potash and fat produces a primitive soap.  Add sand for abrasion.  When I was a child, our elderly neighbour still made her own soap from lamb fat and caustic soda, a cheap option in 1960s Australia, when many people lived on a steady diet of grilled lamb chops.

With the development of cities, the old idea of the river washing place underwent innovations.  At Cefalù in northern Sicily, there is a washing place – il lavatoio – of stunning beauty that possibly dates from Arabic times.  Just off a medieval street is an enclosed area where stone steps go down to the original stream, beside which are basins cut into the stone where the women must have knelt, each with an angled stone in front of her on which to scrub the clothes.

In Cefalù – or Genoa – wet clothes dried in the sunshine.  In northern Europe, drying the washing during the winter months was much harder.  In early 20th century France, according to my friend’s mother-in-law, the women would pack away dirty clothing in a large hamper, sprinkling ash between each layer, before it was brought out for an enormous spring clean when the weather grew warm enough for washing.  It must have been a hamper like this, much bigger than our idea of a laundry basket, in which Falstaff hid in The Merry Wives of Windsor, before being thrown into the Thames with the dirty washing.

Hand washing clothes is pretty basic, and hasn’t changed much over time.  As the novelist Terry Pratchett says, washing was ‘women’s work, and therefore monotonous, backbreaking and social.’ But as society became more complex, the work was outsourced by those who could afford to do so, to domestic servants, to professional washerwomen or, in the cities, to commercial laundries.

Because the work is basic, and needs little communication between worker and client, laundries have become a refuge, or a prison, for vulnerable workers without language skills or industrial muscle. In early Australia, convict women did the washing, either working for individuals and families, or as residents of the various ‘female factories’ in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where many women lived between assignments.  Chinese laundries were common after the gold rush, both in the United States and Australia.  Convents ran laundries too, such as the Holy Cross Laundry in Brisbane, which the Sisters of Mercy started in 1888 to provide work for girls who fell pregnant out of wedlock.

Although commercial laundries were an expensive option for many people, without adequate space, water or heating, many had no choice but to pay a significant part of their income to get their clothes washed.  I’ve paid an arm and a leg myself occasionally because what else can you do when travelling, if you only have a few clothes with you, they don’t dry overnight, and you need to look good for some important event?

So it was, by the mid-19th century, for a governess or a clerk, people hanging on to middle class status by their fingertips, with few clothes, but a desperate need to look respectable.  Clean clothes, especially white shirts and blouses, had become a marker of status.  It is at about this time that the white wedding dress, the ultimate in pointless conspicuous consumption, began to make its appearance.

Meanwhile for the poor, the breakthrough came with the arrival of cheap cotton cloth during the industrial revolution.  Until the 19th century, the rich wore linen underwear, but linen is expensive.  For the poor, the choice was between coarse wool and nothing at all beneath their outer garments.  Woollen underwear provided warmth, but it was hard to wash and dry, and it harboured a lot of insect life.  Cotton could be washed more easily, and gradually the idea of wearing, and washing, clean undergarments took hold.  Skins became less itchy, people scratched less, and got fewer infections as a result.

The extent of this new cleanliness shouldn’t be exaggerated. Immigrants to Australia in the mid-19th century were told to bring enough clothing to provide for a change of clothes once a week.  I feel scratchy just thinking of it.  But even so, the impact of cotton underclothes had begun.  Cleanliness may or may not be next to godliness – many saints have been quite conspicuously filthy – but within the last century, it has become an expectation in our lives.  And why shouldn’t underpants swing proudly free in the breezes of Genoa?  I’m sure Berlusconi would approve.

Old and interesting – history of laundry – http://www.oldandinteresting.com/history-of-laundry.aspx

Female Factory Research Group http://www.femalefactory.com.au/FFRG/index.htm

6 responses to “White collar work: doing the laundry

  1. Of all my whitegoods, and I have a few, my automatic washing machine has been the most wonderful. The few times I have had to handwash large hampers of clothing and bedding when we were first married in England were gruesome. I have never taken it for granted!
    Another great glimpse into history. Great writing.

  2. Kerry Heckenberg

    Two images come to mind, Marion. Vida Lahey’s wonderful ‘Monday Morning’ (1912) depicts washing day in my childhood. And the film ‘My Mother India’ in which Safina Uberoi, daughter of an Australian mother and an Indian father, describes the scandal created in New Delhi by her mother’s habit of hanging out underwear to dry in the open, in the sight of all!

    • HI Kerry. When I first wrote this post, I talked about ‘Monday Morning’, which is just wonderful. But I wasn’t sure about copyright of the image, and without seeing it, it’s hard to talk about it. People can see it here

      I know that women on the immigrant ships were given some private space where they could wash their ‘smalls’ out of sight of the men!

  3. Pingback: Scandal sheets | Historians are Past Caring

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