Books Bygone: Wash Day
Marica Bernstein

My library contains a lot of old books by Great Thinkers addressing life’s most profound questions. What does it mean to flourish as a human being? How can we believe in a benevolent God in the face of brutish evil? What is the proper relationship of the state to the citizen? Why is Tuesday becoming preferable to Monday as wash-day? Thankfully, that last one is a bit easier to answer than the others.

Early in the 20th century, Mary Brooks Picken founded the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences. The Institute was a trade school with a large correspondence component. Homemakers across the country signed up, received books and other materials in the mail, and learned about the properties of various textiles, the history of lace, how to alter a dress pattern, and—if they were good in the domestic arts and sciences—how to open their own profitable dressmaking shops. Picken authored nearly 100 books and pamphlets distributed by her Institute, and among women at the time, was a household name.

To the question of why Tuesday replaced Monday as wash-day we turn to The Woman’s Institute Library of Dressmaking: Care of Clothing (1925). “Since time immemorial it seems wash-day was Monday and more often than not, ‘Blue Monday’; but of late years Tuesday has been growing in popularity… . This plan leaves Monday as a day in which the housewife can replenish the larder and put her house in order after the Sunday’s rest or entertaining.” She also has time on Monday to “look over her wash, mend the holes or tears that might become larger in the laundering, remove the stains that should have attention, prepare food with a view to having something for the next day, and in the evening place the washing apparatus and piles of clothes in readiness without infringing on the pleasures or quiet of Sunday.” So Tuesday it is!

You have no idea how much work was associated with doing the laundry in the 1920s. First, you must have a “room for laundry work” although the kitchen can serve that purpose provided it has a small closet in which to store the various tubs and boards and soaps. Choosing the right equipment is important. “There is no devise among those of the housekeeper which saves so much valuable time and takes out so much drudgery from housework as does the washing machine.” But beware! Not all washing machines are created equal. The dolly, cylinder, oscillating, and pressure and suction machines have advantages and disadvantages, as does the older washboard. A good clothes wringer saves time and money but be careful to not over-do the tension—that will make ironing more difficult.

You will also need clothes baskets, lines, and pins. And though “nothing is better than sun and air for the drying of clothes, there are times when these agents are not available” so you will also need a clothes dryer. Now, don’t get too excited. Picken isn’t talking about an electrical dryer; she’s talking about various contraptions that hang from the laundry room ceiling or sit on the kitchen floor. If you are lucky, however, your home will contain a “drying room fitted with heating pipes.” Be sure it’s well ventilated or your laundry may turn yellow from the steam.

There are 67 pages devoted to laundry including a detailed discussion of soap, bluing, starch, etc., and the pros and cons of gas, electric and gasoline irons. Be careful with that gasoline iron. “There is a danger of fire when leaks appear in the tank.” There are also six diagrams showing how to properly fold linens and garments after they’ve been ironed. Please “avoid all unnecessary creases” when folding ironed undergarments. On a very serious note, there is also a discussion of how to sterilize clothing infected with anthrax and gas gangrene.

Did you catch that: ironed undergarments? Talk about work! It will be a cold day in Mississippi when I iron my undergarments.

Mary Brooks Picken. Woman’s Institute Library of Dressmaking: Care of Clothing. The Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, Scranton, Pa. 1925.
Available at online book sellers.

Originally published in y little weekly newspaper, 2014. This version has been modified slightly.

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