Doing the museum's dirty laundry: families learn to launder the hard way

By Erin Blasco
Display showing laundry

Wearing splash-compatible footwear, museum intern Elizabeth Casey asks a couple of kids on the museum’s terrace whether they’d like to fetch 25 buckets of water. The answer, of course, is no. Luckily, the “Wash, Rinse, Wring, Repeat: 19th Century Laundry at Home” program takes place within reach of the museum’s garden hose.

This photo makes laundry look really fun. In reality, it was hard work.
We recently hung our laundry program out to dry until next spring. In the meantime, see our other programs, such as Love on the Range.

While lugging heavy water buckets sounds like no fun, the youngsters are more than willing to help with the other aspects of frontier-style laundering. They help intern Emilie Foyer get the clothes sudsy, using soap made with a historic recipe (and a year’s worth of leftover kitchen fat from the culinary efforts of Daily Programs Director Chris Wilson). Little hands struggle to remove imaginary grime from shirts and socks using a washboard, an object visitors often recognize first as a musical instrument and only second as an essential tool in this chore. “Use those muscles!” says Foyer. Then they squeeze out the water by cranking the wringer/mangle before hanging the clothes up to dry.

Interns help visitors wash, rinse, crank the wringer, and hang the clothes to dry. One sock that was washed and re-washed all summer kept growing longer and longer thanks to repeated trips through the wringer.
Watching as the kids gleefully wash, rinse, crank the wringer, hang the clothes to dry and, in some cases, beg to repeat the whole process over again, adults talk about how this isn’t just a fun, historic novelty for them—it’s a memory. Although “Wash, Rinse, Wring, Repeat” is designed to connect with historical eras long past, such as the frontier experience of the 1800s, the program moves many to share stories of laundering clothes in their own lifetimes.

Edna, a visitor who grew up in Honduras, said, “When I was seven, I remember seeing concrete areas of homes where women did the wash.” Did she help out? “No,” she shakes her head. “My family had a maid.” Edna didn’t do laundry until 1959, when she attended high school in Indiana. She remembers washerwomen in Honduras who would pick up linen from homes, take them to the river, and wash them on the stones. The linen returned crisply folded, sometimes carried on the washerwoman’s head.

Mary Ann, a visitor who grew up in New York, also remembers her grandmother’s washing room, which had a somewhat similar set-up. Life was harder then, she muses, then says, “I don’t know what’s more important: the washing machine or the refrigerator. The drier you could live without.”

Laundress Catherine Lynch used the kitchen of her apartment and the yard as her workplace in the 1870s and 1880s. Visitors can try their hand at laundry tasks in the exhibition Within These Walls.
Laundress Catherine Lynch used the kitchen of her apartment and the yard as her workplace in the 1870s and 1880s. Visitors can try their hand at laundry tasks in the exhibition Within These Walls.
Finding themselves barred from most industrial jobs and deprived of U.S. citizenship in the late nineteenth century, many Chinese immigrants started their own businesses as a means of survival. Smithsonian curators purchased these brass water sprayers, used in a Chinese laundry shop in Washington, D.C., to help tell stories of immigrant labor in the 1976 exhibition A Nation of Nations.
Sprayers from a Chinese American laundry shop in Washington, D.C.

Daily Programs Floor Manager Katie Macko says that the program often sparks memories like these and that one of the program’s main messages is that this basic chore was extremely difficult before modern conveniences. “This was the first job shipped out of the house the minute you were wealthy enough,” Macko says. Who took on this work? Here in Washington, D.C., in the early 1900s, a family might bring its clothes to a Chinese laundry shop.

From the 1910s into the 1960s, mailing laundry home to mom was also an option. Undergraduates, summer campers, military personnel, and others took advantage of Parcel Post mailing to send clothes home to be washed. As this post by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum points out, mom might also include some treats in the package along with clean clothes.

Magdalena Mieri, director of the Program in Latino History and Culture, who helped in the program’s development, says it connects visitors with the value clothes once had. “People need to realize that back then, people didn’t have the number and variety of clothes that we have today and that the work of washing them was part of why,” says Mieri. “There were work clothes and then there were special Sunday clothes—and those were very, very special. They were more expensive than today and people took good care of clothes—better than we take care of our clothes today.”

Do you have memories or family stories of washing clothes before modern conveniences? Share them in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the Web and New Media Department.