Laundress-Laundry Methods

Laundress washing Clothes
At Fort Scott, each laundress had to wash the clothes of 15 soldiers. Each soldier's laundry was washed three times a week in the summer and two times a week during the winter, which meant that laundresses were washing clothes six days a week. Each soldier was assigned a number and that number was marked on all of his clothing, This practice enabled the laundresses to keep track of which items of clothing belonged to which soldier.
Laundress plunging hands into water

Laundry was an all day task and involved several steps:

  • Clothes had to be sorted prior to washing. Delicate fabrics such as handkerchiefs were put in one pile. White shirts and undergarments were put in another and then colored fabrics were sorted by color.
  • The next step would be to remove the stains. Stained fabric could be pretreated with lye, or if it was a grease stain, it could be treated with a powdery substance such as chalk or pipe clay. The powder would absorb the grease and could then be brushed off prior to washing. Stains would often be hand scrubbed with soap prior to washing.
  • The clothes were then soaked in soapy, warm water to loosen the dirt. Often items were left to soak one or two days.
  • When laundry day came, the items were washed and rinsed. One tub would hold the wash water and the other would hold the rinse water. To prepare the wash water, laundresses would shave soap into the water.
  • The items to be washed were plunged into the wash water, scrubbed against the washboard, and then rung out. The process was repeated until the clothes were clean.
  • The clothes would then be rinsed and rung again and then moved to the boiling pot. Clothes were boiled to remove the last remnants of soap and possibly to kill lice. Badly stained clothes would be pretreated again prior to boiling, because boiling would set stains. Often soda and more soap would be added to the water during the boiling process. During the boiling process, a dolly or washing stick* was used to stir the clothes.
  • The clothes were then rinsed again and then hung out to dry. White clothes were hung in the sun to be bleached and colored fabrics hung in the shade to keep them from fading.
Laundresse appear to be mending something
Mending was done either before or after washing, depending on the condition of the item being mended. By mending before washing, tears could be prevented from becoming worse during washing. However, performing repairs could be an unpleasant task if the items were very dirty since they might be stiff or smelly, so sometimes mending was done after the item was clean.
Laundress Ironing Clothes

Ironing was an unpleasant task that was done after the day's washing. Then, as now, ironing was done to remove the wrinkles from the fabric. Prior to ironing, the garment would be sprinkled with water to make the fibers softer.

The most common type of iron was the flat iron, which was one solid piece of cast iron. It would be heated by placing it on a trivet over the coals of a fire. After heating, it could be used to iron clothes, but a cloth was required to hold the handle because it would be as hot as the rest of the iron. An ironing cloth was used atop the ironing board so that a smoother surface could be used for ironing, which translated into a smoother surface on the fabric.

* The dolly was sometimes used in the initial wash process instead of the washboard if the clothes were not too dirty.


Information on this page came from Laundry and Cleaning Practices of the Mid-Nineteenth Century by Virginia Mescher, published by Nature's Finest, 1994. Used by permission.

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Last updated: July 25, 2016

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