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Once upon a time a metal washboard and bar of hard soap with a tub of hot water was a newfangled way of tackling laundry, though today it’s a common picture of “old-fashioned” laundering; But what went on before? How did people wash clothes without the factory-made equipment and cleansing products of the 19th century?

Here are the few common ways you would have to wash your clothes:

Washing clothes in the river are still the normal way of doing laundry in many less-developed parts of the world. Even in prosperous parts of the world riverside washing went on well into the 19th century, or longer in rural areas – even when the river was frozen. Stains might be treated at home before being taken to the river. You could take special tools with you to the river to help the work: like a washing bat or a board to scrub on. Washing bats and beetles were also useful for laundering elsewhere, and have been used for centuries, sometimes for smoothing dry cloth too. 

Long thin washing bats are not very different from sticks. Both can be used for moving cloth around as well as for beating the dirt out of it. Doing this with a piece of wood was called possing, and various styles of possers, washing dollies etc. developed as an improvement on plain tree branches. Squarish washing bats could double up as a scrub board. Simple wooden boards can be taken to the riverside, or rocks at the edge of the water may be used as scrubbing surfaces. (The more sophisticated kind of washboard with ridged metal in a wooden frame came later.) Two other techniques for shifting dirt are slapping clothes or trampling with bare feet, kneeling women scrubbing cloth on rock and board Domestic laundry was often treated like newly woven textiles being “finished”. Today we have only vague ideas about how the fabrics in our shop-bought clothes are manufactured, but traditional laundry methods often followed techniques used by weavers, including home weavers.

In the later years of the 19th and 20th century

The earliest manual washing machines imitated the motion of the human hand on the washboard, by using a lever to move one curved surface over another and rubbing clothes between two ribbed surfaces. This type of washer was first patented in the United States in 1846 and survived as late as 1927 in the Montgomery Ward catalogue. The first electric clothes washers, in which a motor rotated the tub, were introduced into America about 1900. The motor was not protected beneath the machine and water often dripped into it causing short-circuits and jolting shocks. By 1911, it was possible to buy oscillating, cylinder, domestic washing machines with sheet metal tubs mounted on angle-iron frames with perforated metal or wooden slat cylinders inside.

We hope this little bit of history proves how good we have it with our current appliances and the importance of caring for them. If you want to prevent having to wash like you’re in the middle ages then contact us for details on repairs and inspections.Old Laundary Machine1