Monday, January 21, 2008

Washday By Hand

Hans Dieter and Margret Jung in the garden of Haus Jung

My curiosity about the way in which women washed and dried clothing in the 19th century - methods, how often, time spent - began when my sister and I rented a ground floor vacation apartment at the Haus Jung in Saarburg in 2002.

In no time at all the Haus Jung had lived up to its claim as the "friendliest Gasthaus in Saarburg." Margret and Hans Dieter Jung treated us like old friends, even though we had never met before, and I spoke German at about the same level as their five-year-old granddaughter. In addition these welcoming landlords had never rented their comfortable vacation apartment to English speakers before. They had taken the chance that all would work out even though they spoke no English.

To my surprise, I learned that Herr Jung had a hobby that fit perfectly into my search for information about the lives of my Saarburg area ancestors. He was a serious and skilled collector of old postcards from the Saarburg region. He showed me a part of his album collection and then suggested that I might also enjoy seeing some of the postcards that he had scanned into his computer.

That afternoon I saw a picture show of the "old" Saarburg; the city as it was in the late 19th and early 20th century, before much of it was changed forever by World War II and by modernization. It was like taking a virtual trip back in history. Herr Jung explained each picture on the computer screen, pointing out the places that today are reconstructions, those that no longer exist and those which still stand much as they always have.

Near the banks of the Saar River and the Leukbach stream on washday

In one of the picture postcards, something lay on the ground, looking a bit like patchy snow. Herr Jung told me that the village women placed the laundry there because the bank was close to the stream that runs through Saarburg and also to the Saar River. I was amazed.

With my limited vocabulary, I couldn't understand his more detailed explanation of the scene. But the postcard picture stayed in my mind. And with the help of three books in my collection, I've acquired a much clearer idea of what washday meant to women of the past - those in Saarburg and in neighboring parts of Germany and France. From a children's book on the customs and traditions of German Lothringen, (now Lorraine, France); from an English language guidebook to the Roscheider Hof museum at Konz; and from a book about the history and customs of Westphalia, near Munster, I came to appreciate my automatic washer and dryer as never before.

"The Big Wash" in Lothringen

There was always in Lothringen, says the author of Landleben im Jahreslauf, a "big wash" in the spring which had to take place before Easter. During the long winter a mountain of "white" wash had collected. On the day of the wash, the kitchen or the bakehouse began to bustle with life.

Water was heated in the big pot which was more normally used to prepare feed for the pigs. The dirty wash had already been put in a large wooden laundry tub and covered with a bedsheet. Ashes, which had been saved from the fireplace all winter long, were sprinkled on the top of that bedsheet.

When the water in the pig-food kettle was hot, it was poured over the ashes by the housewife so that the solution of wood ash (lye) and the water could permeate the layers of wash. The contents of the tub were swished back and forth; then everything was left standing until the next day.

On the second day of the big wash, all of the wet wash was put into a wheelbarrow and taken to a washhouse, usually located in the middle of the village. (I've been told that the washhouse was not common in Germany, but have read that there were, at one time, washhouses and women for hire to do laundry, along the Seine River in Paris).

Whether at the washhouse or near the river, the women, knelt, beating the laundry with washing paddles. In addition, they rubbed it, rinsed it and wrung it out until it was white again. As they worked, the women found time to chat and gossip, the sounds of their voices heard far into the village. With wet skirts, reddened hands and tired arms, the women then made their way home.

When the wash was dry again and had been ironed, the women would put the laundered items back into a peppermint and absinth scented oak chest. The next wash would take place after the summer work was finished and there was once again time for another strenuous washing.

From the Roscheiderhof Museum Guide

The writer of the guide points out that, in order to be a judge of what a woman's job of laundry involved in earlier days, you have to imagine the many stages of the wash days as they were practiced right up until the 1950s. Much time and energy were required, and it took far longer than in modern times, before the laundry once again lay clean in the cupboard. For this reason the white wash was generally only done twice a year. This is the same as the "big wash" in Lothringen.

Why only two times a year? For one reason there was far more important work to do in the summer. Another reason was that the mild days of spring and early summer were used for a "general cleaning". The months between the two laundry days were tided over with supplies from the "laundry cupboard." This explains the large number of bed linens contained in a proper dowry. The colored items were cleaned every four weeks because the laundering process was not so labor intensive and because there were not so many of them.

Women washing clothes on the river bank in Saarburg

there was a stream or river near the village, this made rinsing the laundry much easier. The washerwomen rubbed the laundry and kept brushing it out in the running water. On farms washing with wood ash, rinsing in running waters and bleaching on the fields were still usual well into the 20th century. However village women began to have some form of ringer washer and wash tubs. Village wash was hung out to dry. Right up until the 1950s the white wash was then placed on the mown grass to bleach. This was the process shown on Herr Jung's postcard that had so intrigued me.

Washdays on a Large "Hof" in the Upper Rhine Country

In the Münster region on the upper Rhine, the farms were larger than in the Saarburg or Lothringen areas. Inheritance laws here favored the eldest son; the land traditionally was not divided among all the children as in those regions where Napoleon had declared all children equal heirs to the property of their father.

The book Damals auf dem Lande explains that the wash was done monthly and each time there were days of hard work that took place. On a large farm, there were not only family members, including unmarried relatives and elderly parents, but also a number of serving maids and laborers who lived on the premises. The clothing of everyone who lived on the farm was part of the pile collected for a wash process that went on for days.

The labor was similar to the methods already described. Garments were soaked in wood ash or some other type of lye mixture. A fatty soap was used for the strenuous rubbing of every item, especially parts of garments that were heavily stained. In addition, all the water for the washing had to be gotten from an inside or outside well; then carried to the wash tubs and to the large water-heating kettle which at other times was the container for making slops for the pigs.

Chicken looking for garments to walk on?
The most time-consuming part of washing, as in Lothringen and in the Mosel and Saar areas, involved the white linens. These had to be bleached. After the wash process was completed, the linens were spread in the meadow for a day or more. As the sun dried the linens, it also took out dullness and grayness on the exposed side. Then the linens were turned, and the bleaching process was repeated. Oh the danger! The linens were at risk from tree and plant pollen, the birds overhead, or an unpenned chicken or three. When such disaster happened, tears might easily be shed because the wash had to be done all over again.

The last work of the wash was the rinsing out. Most of the wash was put into a wheelbarrow and taken to the closest stream, a place where one would have flowing water. This rid the clothes of the ash and/or the soap, and it was much easier than doing a rinse at the farmstead, where every bucket of water had to be pumped and carried. On cold days the rinsing in the stream was unpleasant. Icy water hurt the hands, making them stiff, red, and cracked. When it was really cold, women took a container of hot water with them. Periodically they used it to warm their hands. After the rinsing, the wash dried on racks or sometimes also on the ground.

Then came the ironing. Strength and skill were required, especially with the earliest ironing devices. The early Bugeleisen was a monster-sized ironing apparatus. A red-hot iron bolt was placed in a deep hole at the top of the Bugeleisen. This warmed the entire iron. More bolts were kept red-hot in burning coals, ready to be inserted when the current bolt cooled. Another version of the Bugeleisen had a deep cavity, and glowing coals were placed in it. Eventually a smaller and lighter version of the Bugeleisen was used. The Setzeisen (sitting iron) was smaller and lighter. It set on a hot plate to be heated. When the iron was hot, a handle was clamped to it. While the woman ironed, a second Setzeisen was warming on the hot plate.

Many thanks to Herr Jung of Saarburg for introducing me to the history of washday/s and for his generous willingness to search his postcard collection and scan all the postcards showing the many styles of drying and bleaching laundry in his home city for this blog post. Here are a few more.

Laundry day in color

Laundry on washstands on the Saar River Banks

..Will the wash dry soon..

Big wash - big picture of Saarburg

1 comment:

  1. This is so neat. I just found out my ancestors came from Irsch and am thrilled to see and read everything on this site. I love History too and especially personal history. I am in Heaven!