Let’s get real: most people dislike doing chores. But we so often forget how easy we have it compared to our forebears when it comes to performing basic household tasks. When you see what our ancestors had to go through for the sake of clean clothes, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for your washer and dryer.
We can sometimes take for granted just why it is that white goods are referred to as “mod cons”. That’s shorthand for “modern conveniences”, for those who don’t know. Washing machines, for example, can operate at the touch of a button, and within an hour a whole bundle of clothes is clean once again.
But things weren’t always that way. In fact, the automatic washing machine is a relatively new invention in the grand scheme of things. However, the need for clean clothes dates back a lot further than the advent of the washer. So how did people clean and dry their clothes without the use of washers and dryers?
Well, that’s something an Alabama bride purportedly learned when her grandmother gifted her a “recipe” for “warshing clothes” some years ago. That’s right, the clothes-cleaning process was so involved for our ancestors that it required a comprehensive list of instructions. The language, too, was a world away from what we know today.
But technology, as well as language, has evolved over the centuries, and this method is now a piece of social history. But we guarantee, after you read the following “Warshing Clothes Recipe,” you’ll have a newfound appreciation, not only for the humble washer/dryer, but also for the lengths to which your ancestors went for clean clothes.
Indeed, we now live in a world dominated by technology. And while it’s not yet possible to have your smartphone separate and load your dirty laundry into the washer for you, it is at least possible to control your machine from it. However, it perhaps goes without saying that things weren’t always that way.
As recently as 1940, only 25 million U.S. homes were connected to the electricity grid. Of those, about 60 percent had an electric washing machine. And with early versions of the automatic, front-loading machines you see today retailing for around $250, it’s easy to see why. That’s pushing $2,700 in today’s money.
For everyone else, then, clothes washing was a far more laborious task. Indeed, it’s an undertaking that was highlighted in a “recipe” for the chore that emerged some years ago in a “count your blessings” note. The message was passed on from a grandmother in Alabama to a new bride.
The precise origins of the “Warshing” Clothes Recipe are unknown. It’s believed to have long been circulated as something called “xeroxlore” – that’s basically a meme but printed on a piece of paper, old school-style. Precisely when it originated is a lot more difficult to pin down, other than “a very long time” ago.
There is a copy of the instructions on display in New Zealand, at a museum in Arrowtown, around 13 miles from Queenstown on the South Island. Indeed, Arrowtown in itself is like a slice of history brought to life. Much of its architecture is preserved from its 1862 gold-rush roots.
Jan Harold Brunvand, a folklore specialist, came across a copy of the “Warshing” Clothes Recipe in a diary in South Carolina in 1981. That in turn was a reproduction of a copy that was found in a newspaper in 1975. But those dates are in recent history, so how old is the laundry guide really?
Well, the instructions were also reproduced in a newspaper in Kansas in 1954. A reader brought a news clipping of the guide to the attention of a columnist at the paper. It is believed that the clipping was from another, unidentified newspaper which had also printed the instructions sometime previously. Yet the list seems older than that still.
Indeed, when it appeared in 1981, the article provoked a response from a reader. A woman wrote to the journal, sending a typed copy of a handwritten, 13-point list that had hung “above my mother’s wringer washer in a little town in the wheat country of Colorado for as long as I can remember. That was during the ’40s.”
So it can be said with confidence that the “Warshing” Clothes Recipe dates back at least to the 1940s. However, the origins of the note are entirely unclear. Nevertheless, since automatic washing machines were only available for home use from 1937, the method may have been widely used in living memory.
The following, then, is a version of the instructions apparently handed to a bride by her grandmother from the Kentucky mountains decades ago. It is complete with all the misused words, spelling mistakes and phonetics contained in the note, and will make you appreciate the hard work saved by the humble washer and dryer.
The first step was to, “Bild fire in back yard to heet kettle of rain water.” Indeed, as recently the 1960s, 10 percent of homes, mostly mountainous rural areas, were without electricity. Mains water was introduced to housing in remote locations across roughly the same timeframe. Before that happened, rainwater needed to be collected and heated over open fires.
The second stage is, “Set tubs so smoke won’t blow in eyes if wind is pert.” Indeed, if there was a strong breeze on wash day, then there was a risk that it could blow smoke from the open fire into one’s eyes. Even small amounts of smoke can cause irritation and problems with vision.
Step three was, “Shave one hole cake lie soap in bilin water.” “Bilin” means boiling in today’s English, but it’s not only the language that has evolved over time. Whereas today many soaps are available in multiple forms and scents specific to various tasks, in bygone days such compounds were scarce.
Indeed, before soap became widely available as a retail item, it was often made at home. Its constituents were wood ashes and animal fat boiled in water to condense them. Making soap was a messy and smelly chore that took all day. Homemakers generally performed this task once or twice a year, making enough to last for many months.
The fourth instruction was, “Sort things, make three piles, 1 pile white, 1 pile cullored, 1 pile work britches and rags.” Technology is yet to find a solution for sorting laundry, which is still performed by hand. However, in this era, it was important to wash laundry piles in the correct order.
Due to the laborious nature of laundry day, one tub of water would be used for all of the clothes. Therefore, white fabrics would need to be washed first to avoid tainted water, followed by “cullord,” or colored clothes. Work clothes and other soiled fabrics were washed last so as not to contaminate the other wash loads.
Next, “Stur flour in cold water to smooth then thin down with bilin water.” This is a process called starching. Starching slightly stiffened fabric, making it more resistant to stains and wrinkles. It also took some of the effort out of ironing the garments later in the week – another laborious process without the convenience of electricity.
Step six was, “Rub dirty spots on board, scrub hard. Then bile. Rub cullard but don’t bile.” Indeed, washboards seem to have been a fairly common piece of laundry equipment in bygone days. The friction caused by rubbing garments against its knobbled surface helped force soapy water through the fabric and remove dirt.
Furthermore, placing clothing in boiling water after scrubbing can help kill germs and freshen the fabric. However, while lighter garments and things like linens and bed sheets might benefit from this extra step, vibrant colors might run and fade over time. So it was best to skip this step for colored clothing.
Next was, “Take white things out of kettle with a broom handle, then wrench, blew and starch.” Of course, using a broom handle was to avoid nasty burns from the boiling water. Meanwhile, to “rench” means rinse, while “blew” is an old-fashioned method to make white fabrics appear even whiter.
Indeed, white fabrics can develop a yellow hue over time. The method of bluing acts to offset the discoloration, with blue being the opposing color to yellow, making fabrics appear much brighter. Today, bluing often takes place during the manufacturing process of white fabrics, with fluorescing agents also added to cleaning products for a similar effect.
The next steps on the list, items eight and nine, are pretty straightforward. Eight is, “Spred tee towles on grass,” while nine says, “Hand old rags on fence.” Presumably that’s a spelling mistake in the latter instruction, which should read hang old rags on fence. Either way, spreading and hanging garments would help them dry quicker.
Now, we can often take running water for granted when it’s at our disposal straight from a faucet. However, in times gone by, water would need to be collected from a well or pump and carried in buckets to the back yard. It made sense, then, to redistribute the wash water for other chores.
So item 10 on the “Warshing” Clothes Recipe was, “Pore rench water in flower bed.” Now, “rench” means rinse, which suggests that the water used in the later stages of laundry was used to water the plants in the yard. Using non-soapy water would presumably have a less detrimental effect on the shrubbery.
The soapy wash water, then, was used for outdoor chores. Indeed, as item number 11 states, “Scrub down porch with hot soapy water.” Of course, the soap would help to lift the dirt from the porch, while the dirty nature of the water would have mattered less because it was outdoors anyway.
Step 12, however, was simply, “Turn tubs upside down.” With all the wash water used up on other chores and drained from the tubs, they were then inverted and left to dry, ready for the next wash day. By turning the tub upside down it stayed cleaner and more free from germs.
Then, with the laundry complete, it was time to relax. As the 13th and final step states, “Go put on cleen dress, smooth hair with side combs, brew cup of tee – set and rest a rock a spell and count yore blessins.” But perhaps it’s today that we should remember to count our blessings.
Indeed, it’s hard to fathom that homemakers at the turn of the 20th century would set aside an entire day to do the laundry. And it’s not only the labor of scrubbing each garment clean that made it such an arduous chore. With no modern plumbing, there was some staggeringly heavy lifting involved.
As inventions website The Great Idea Finder described, “One wash, one boiling and one rinse used about 50 gallons of water – or 400 pounds – which had to be moved from pump or well or faucet to stove and tub, in buckets and wash boilers that might weigh as much as 40 or 50 pounds.”
The earliest apparatus developed to aid in the washing of clothes was based on the washboard. It mimicked the manual scrubbing motion to rub garments between two ridged plates. However, being lever operated, there was still manual work involved. Nevertheless, the machines were available from the 1840s and still marketed as late as 1927.
Furthermore, mangles were used to wring clothes after they had been “renched.” Clothing was passed between two rollers to squeeze out excess water. However, garments were passed through one at a time and the rollers were often operated manually. So, while more efficient at helping dry the clothes, it was still a laborious undertaking.
The first automatic washing machine for home use was introduced in 1937 by Bendix Home Appliances. And what’s remarkable about the device is how faithful today’s designs are to this first model. Indeed, the front-loading window is instantly recognizable to. Its basic functions, too, aren’t a world away from those of modern machines.
However, washing machines in the late ’40s and early ’50s were very expensive. As we’ve already seen, the first Bendix machine retailed for around $250, which would be almost $2,700 in modern money. But, despite the high cost, manufacturers struggled to meet demand for automatic washers in the early 1950s. And as technology advanced, prices dropped.
Although washing machines and dryers have taken most of the effort out of laundry day, appliances are still being developed for modern concerns. A huge amount of power is used to operate the machines, so manufacturers are constantly looking for new ways to use less energy and water, addressing consumers’ environmental concerns.
Nevertheless, when the idea of doing the laundry drags you down, remember how hard our ancestors had it. Separating laundry and loading the machine really isn’t that hard in comparison. So once you’ve motivated yourself to do it and selected an appropriate program, brew a cup of tea, sit, and “count yore blessins”.