Washing Day at the Revere House
By Alexandra Powell
When visitors to the Paul Revere House make it to the end of their tour in the back bedchamber, having seen neither bathroom, nor mudroom, nor laundry room in the kitchen, hall, or best chamber, their questions often tend towards matters hygienic. Visitor awareness of 18th century hygiene practices runs the gamut – some are shocked that indoor plumbing did not yet exist, others already expected it and want to know exactly where Revere’s outdoor privy might have stood. Soon the question of laundry arises – where and how did the Reveres wash their clothes?
Students lucky enough to have participated in our “Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride: Storytelling Program” can answer this question! As a part of that program, a student will have taken on the role of unlucky Sarah, Paul’s 13-year-old daughter and the one in charge of laundry on the day in question. Unlucky indeed – laundry day in the 18th century was quite a production. It was so universally disliked of as a chore, it was often given to younger daughters or even hired help. The mistress of the house probably felt like she’d completed her fair share of loads in her youth. “Laundry day,” as a trope, was often used in satirical humor depicting grumpy women and cold dinners.
Laundry day most often happened on a Monday or Tuesday, perhaps because the ladies in charge had been able to rest on the Sabbath and were looking to accomplish their hardest chores early in the week. It was truly a day-long process, involving much water carrying, fire building, and the rinsing, scrubbing, and beating of clothes. “Beating” is used here in the literal sense – whacking the clothes with a washing-stick was a necessary part of the process of relieving heavily soiled linens of their dirt. This intensely physical action manually removed the debris from the fibers. While Paul Revere most likely never did his own washing, he might have occasionally been conscripted to help in the preparatory process; he might have carried wood, made bundles of brush in the yard for drying, or hauled large and unwieldy barrels of water from the well. The Reveres were fortunate to have use of a well in their yard. Most Bostonians shared a public well, the closest being located in the market at North Square.
Laundry day did not wait for dry and sunny weather. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” was a familiar phrase in the 18th century, and something taken to heart by many New England housewives. Domestic economy books of the day strongly discouraged heaps of dirty laundry collecting in the corner of a room, as they could grow moldy. Moreover, having clean undergarments (shifts for women and shirts for men, stockings and neckerchiefs for both sexes) was the primary method of staying bodily clean at the time. With no showers to speak of, 18th century folk kept fresh by frequently changing the linens kept closest to their bodies. For these reasons, laundry happened year-round. In the winter, clothes would have to be hung indoors to dry, crowding the main living spaces of the house (the kitchen and keeping rooms) where the fires were largest. If drying lines were relegated to an unheated room, the clothes would most likely freeze before they dried. This, added to the task of carrying buckets of water over icy ground, made winter washing a most unhappy experience. In ideal conditions, washing day could be entirely accomplished out of doors, with clothes being moved through the long series of rinses and scrubbings before being laid on bushes or pinned to a line to dry and bleach in the sun.
The number of phases involved in laundry in the 18th and even into the 19th century is baffling to the modern mind. Miss Catharine Beecher gave her recommended regime in her 1841 Treatise on Domestic Economy:
“Assort the clothes, and put the white ones to soak, the night before, in warm water. Do not allow the hot water to be poured on them as it makes it more difficult to wash out the dirt. In assorting clothes, the flannels are to be put in one lot, the colored clothes in another, the coarser white clothes in a third, and the fine clothes in a fourth lot. Wash the fine clothes first, in suds; and throw them, when wrung, into another tub of suds. Then wash them in the second suds, turning them wrong side out. Then put them in the boiling bag, and let them boil, in strong soapsuds, for half an hour, (not more), and moving them about with the wash-stick to keep them from getting yellow in spots. Take them out of the boiling water into a tub, and rub the dirtiest spots. Then rinse them, throwing them, when wrung, into a tub of blueing-water…Then wash the coarser white articles, in the same manner. Then wash the colored clothes…Lastly wash the flannels.”
As if that were not enough to keep in mind, 18th century housewives were also required to make their own soap for washing. This was usually done in the spring, after a winter’s-worth of ashes could be used to make lye. This was added to collected tallow from animal butchering and grease from winter cooking (necessitating again that this must be done in spring, before the tallow and grease turned rancid) to make either hard soap (best for laundry) or soft soap (best for floors).
All in all, it is easy to see why the washing machine was amongst the first of domestic labor-saving devices to be created, with the earliest patents dating from the first decades of the 19th century. The next time I am feeling hassled by having to keep track of face masks in the wash, I shall think of young Sarah Revere on washing day.
Nylander, Jane C. 1993. Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, 1760-1860.
Alexandra Powell is a Program Assistant at the Paul Revere House