Working Class Women in the Army Era

historic image of a Civil War-era washerwoman, man, and two children outside a tent
A washerwoman and her family pose for the cameras while camped with the Union Army of the Potomac, during the Civil War. Laundresses at Fort Vancouver would have looked similar.  Few personal documents, such as photos or diaries, exist of 19th-century laundresses and other working-class women.

Library of Congress

by Marci Lim

At the U.S. Army's Fort Vancouver (later renamed Vancouver Barracks), working-class women provided important support to the soldiers - both the enlisted men as well as the officers. Officers and their families hired women to serve as cooks, servants, nurses, and midwives.

Each company commander also hired laundresses to wash the enlisted men’s clothing. Laundresses were the only women officially recognized by the Army. As employees of the Army, they received daily rations, fuel, medical services, transportation and housing.

In the early days of Vancouver Barracks, officers’ wives sometimes served as laundresses to gain the privileges of official army recognition, but hired servants to do the actual work for them.

Most laundresses were married to enlisted men or non-commissioned officers. At times, soldier-husbands cared for the children to give their laundress-wives time to do the company washing.

Theodore Talbot, a soldier serving at Vancouver Barracks in the early 1850s, copied a laundry recipe in a letter:

U.S. Army crossed cannons insignia of Battery B, 2nd US Artillery
Archaeological excavations near the laundresses’ quarters uncovered these army insignia. These items may have been lost from a soldier’s uniform during the washing process. The soldier who lost this may not have been as lucky as Talbot, whose skillful washerwoman lost few of his buttons.

NPS Photo

A Receipt for Washing Clothes expeditiously (quickly) and with but little labor

1 Pint Alcohol.

1 Pint Spirits of Turpentine

1 oz. Liquid Ammonia

1 oz Gum Camphor.

Mix together and keep in a bottle well corked.

Two table-spoonfuls of this mixture to five gallons of water adding about one pound of brown Soap or more if you choose. … My washerwoman uses this in getting up (washing) my clothes, with much comfort to herself, great economy of buttons …and I believe no serious detriment (damage) to the linen.

image of an old rusted can found onsite in an archaeological excavation
This tin can was excavated near the laundresses’ quarters during Fort Vancouver’s archaeology field school in 2007. It is a soldered, stamped end can, of the type manufactured between the 1850s and 1890s. It most likely contained fruits or vegetables, based on the size. Since laundresses had to cook

NPS Photo

Some women also found work in the many brothels that thrived in Vancouver and Portland. Soldiers often visited these “bawdy houses.” Since the army strongly discouraged enlisted men from marrying, this was one way for them to find female companionship.

In addition to their paid duties, working-class women still had to care for their families. They cooked for their children as well as their husbands, because married soldiers did not eat in the company mess hall. They also had to do their own housekeeping and laundry.

Note: This page is part of an online exhibit entitled Beyond Officers Row: Duty & Daily Life at the U.S. Army's Fort Vancouver and created by the students of Portland State university as part of the 2009 Public History Field School. Click here to go to the exhibit's main page.


Last updated: February 28, 2015

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