Doing laundry 1880s style is a lot of work

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By Rick Palsgrove
Southeast Editor

Messenger photo by Rick Palsgrove Metro Parks Slate Run Living Historical Farm worker Rachel Brooks uses a hand plunger to wash clothes 1880s style. The plunger helps remove dirt from clothes  similarly to the way the agitator does in a modern automatic washing machine.
Messenger photo by Rick Palsgrove
Metro Parks Slate Run Living Historical Farm worker Rachel Brooks uses a hand plunger to wash clothes 1880s style. The plunger helps remove dirt from clothes similarly to the way the agitator does in a modern automatic washing machine.

We think doing laundry is a chore these days, but it’s nothing compared to what people went through to clean their clothes in the 1880s.

Making soap

Before the washing could even begin our ancestors had to make their own lye soap.

According to workers at Metro Parks Slate Run Living Historical Farm, lye soap is made from a mixture of ashes, water, and rendered pig fat.

“It’s stinky when you’re making it,” said Stephanie Reiner of Slate Run Living Historical Farm.
The ashes, water, and pig fat are stirred together until they thicken into a pudding-like texture, a process that takes a while to complete. It’s important not to let the lye soap mixture touch your skin because it will cause burns.

“You could ad borax to make it smoother or pumice to make the soap grittier,” said Reiner. “Making the soap is a finicky process. There are a lot of variables to consider: Is the weather hot or cold? Is it humid? You have to find a balance.”

Once thickened, the soap is poured into a mold for 24 hours. It is then cut into bars in the mold and stored under the farm’s stove to cure for two to six weeks when it will then be ready to use. Soap was made regularly to make sure there was enough on hand to use when needed.

“The curing process makes the lye soap usable,” said Natelle Ball of Slate Run Living Historical Farm.

“Lye soap is very good at removing grass stains and blood stains,” said Reiner.

Wash day
Just like today, clothes would be separated into lights and darks.

“Clothing in the 1880s was not color fast,” said Reiner.

Clothes would be cleaned by hand using either a plunger or a corrugated washboard, rinsed in a barrel or tub, and then run through a hand operated wringer to extract water from the fabric.

“The plunger works just like the agitator in a modern automatic washing machine to separate dirt from clothes,” said Reiner. “The washboard was good for cleaning gritty stuff from clothing.”

Reiner said the plunger would be used on finer materials because it was less likely to damage clothes as using the washboard might do.

“A washboard is hard on clothes,” said Reiner.

Doing laundry in the 1880s was hard work.

“How horrible it must have been on their hands. The skin on their hands would crack and bleed,” said Reiner of our 1880s ancestors. “They’d often use rosewater or glycerin to help soften their hands.”

Clothes were hung on a clothes line to dry and, if a home did not have a clothes line, the clothes were hung on trees or bushes or laid on the grass to dry, according to Reiner.

Reiner said the really nice clothes that were made of silk or fine wool were rarely washed in this manner.

“These clothes often had detachable dress shields on cuffs and collars that could be taken off and cleaned,” said Reiner.

Slate Run Living Historical Farm is located at 1375 State Route 674 North, near Canal Winchester. For information visit metroparks.net.

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