Simplifying the Wash, Civil War Style

Oak tubs, washboards, iron pots, fire grates, homemade soap, bluing, and plenty of back-breaking work were the basic things needed to get clothes clean mid-century.

This 1861 drawing of two hard-working entrepreneurs gives a good idea of the basics.washing machines

However, Robert Kemp Phillip in The Family Save-All (1861) suggests numerous ways to make the process “easier.”

To cut down washing time considerably he recommends the following:

“Put  half a pound of soda two quarts of boiling water, in an earthenware pan; take half a pound of soap – shredded fine; put it into a saucepan with two quarts of cold water; stand it on a fire till it boils; and when perfectly dissolved and boiling, add it to the former. Mix it well, and let it stand till cold, when it has the appearance of a strong jelly. Let the linen be soaked in water, the seams and any other dirty part rubbed in the usual way, and remain until the following morning. Get your copper ready, and add to the water about a pint basin full of the above preparation; when lukewarm put in your linen, and allow it to boil twenty minutes. Rinse it in the usual way, and that will be all that is necessary to get it clean, and keep it a good colour.” (p 152)

The idea of boiling clothes may seem extreme in our age of detergents and cold water washwomanwashes, but was an effective way to kill off lice and fleas.

Another way to simplify washing according to Phillip is to spot clean.

  • To remove grease spots use alkalies, Fuller’s earth, and essential oils dissolved in alcohol
  • To remove ink spots use oxalic acid.
  • All purpose spot remover can be made by mixing white soap dissolved in alcohol, four or five egg yolks, spirits of turpentine, and enough Fuller’s earth to make a paste that can be formed into balls. To use, rub the ball on the spot.

Would it work today? Give it a try and let me know.

To learn more about doing the laundry mid-19th century see: History of Laundry after 1800




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