Monday, June 30, 2008

Laundry in the Regency

I'm not sure why I picked this topic, except that one of the paintings of Deepdene at the Victoria and Albert exhibition of Thomas Hope was of the drying grounds. The place where the laundress dried the linens. It showed clothes laid out on a lawn, spread over bushes and blowing in the wind on a clothes line.

People took pride in having enough linen to manage without washing frequently. The process was a huge disruption to other domestic routines, taking up to four days even in good drying weather, that there were advantages in spacing it further apart. A visiting washerwoman might come for a couple of days every few weeks to undertake some or all of the work.(See Glasse's The Servant’s Directory, or House-keeper’s Companion.)

Bleaching by the sun or using lye and drying were outdoor activities. The stretch of grass set aside for these jobs was called a bleaching-green or drying-ground. Off-white linen was spread on the ground to bleach in the sun as well as laid out to dry. This picture is of an earlier era, but it was pretty much the same.

Household and personal linen was spread on the grass, soaked with buckets of lye at intervals, and eventually rinsed and dried. There were variations, like using plain water and no lye, and the process might last as much as three days.

Lye can mean various different alkaline concoctions. Some people favoured burning particular kinds of plants for the best lye: seaweed ash produced fine Spanish soap. Areas with plentiful bracken burnt that for lye, and potato plants produced "weed ash" in Ireland. The dictionary (OED) says lye can be "any detergent material used in washing" and may even be “urine used as a detergent”.

Clothes pins were quite simple pieces of wood: split twigs bound with wire or twine like these made by English Romanies.


The mangle (or wringer) was developed in the 18th century — two long rollers in a frame and a crank to revolve them. A laundry-worker took sopping wet clothing and cranked it through the mangle, compressing the cloth and expelling the excess water. The mangle was much quicker than hand twisting. It was a variation on the box mangle used primarily for pressing and smoothing cloth.

18th century inventors also mechanized the laundry process with various hand-operated washing machines. Most involved turning a handle to move paddles inside a tub.

I must say I am very happy with my washing machine.

Next time we will have our usual beginning of the month Flora and Fauna to be followed by fashion. Who knows where our ramble will take us after that.
Until next time, Happy rambles.