Washing your clothes wasn’t always as easy as it is now. The modern convenience of a load of laundry being done in less than two hours, from start to finish, is far from the minimum two days it used to take.
Washing typically began the evening before the clothes were washed. The laundry was separated into loads of lights, darks, flannels and fine clothing. While sorting, each item was inspected for tears that had to be mended before it could be washed. Mending the clothes prevented further damage in the wash process. If there were any heavily stained items they were set to soak the night before. They were then treated for stains with soap, lye or another form of stain remover. For greasy stains, chalk or brick dust may have been used, while for grass and blood, alcohol was the stain remover.
The day of washing started early in the morning. When the weather allowed the washing was usually done outside. Wood generally had to be collected for the fire that would heat the water. Many water sources were not close to the home so it took many loads to get enough water to do the wash. Each load needed around twenty to forty gallons of water for the boiler then another ten gallons to rinse the load in. Collecting wood and water could potentially take an entire day depending on their locations.
Water was heated to a temperature as hot as the women washing could handle putting her hands in. Lye soap was applied to the clothes that had been turned inside out. The clothes were then scrubbed on a washboard which had a wooden frame and a glass or tin scrubbing surface. Each piece was scrubbed till it was as clean as possible.
After they were clean, the clothes were wrung out to get rid of the excess soapy water. This was done by hand or with a mangle if the family had one. A mangle is a laundry aid with two rollers that when the handle is turned the rollers squeeze the water out of the garment. The laundry then was placed in boiling water in a copper boiler. Copper was used because it did not rust and stain the garments. The women doing the wash would stir the clothes with a two to three foot long wooden paddle or a washing plunger. Boiling the wash helped kill any lice or other bugs in the clothes. The clothes were removed with a laundry stick and got rinsed in cool water to remove the soap that the mangle could not get out and that was left from boiling.
Lye, soap, and the impurities that were left in the water left white clothes looking dingy and more yellow than white. In the rinsing of white garments blue blocks made from indigo or Prussian blue pigment were wrapped in cloth and added to the rinsing water. This made the clothes appear whiter.
To dry the clothes they are put through the mangle once again to get rid of as much water as possible to speed up the drying time. When the weather allowed, clothes were dried outside in the sun. It was rare to have a clothesline so most often clothes were put over bushes or on the grass to dry. If weather did not allow for clothes to be dried outside they would be place inside near the stove.
After the clothes were dried nearly all of them had to be ironed in some way. If the woman washing was lucky she had at least two irons to make this step faster. If the house had a cook stove the irons would be heated on it. If there was not a cook stove a frying pan would be placed on the fire grate to prevent the iron from getting dirty. Two irons were used because when the iron naturally cooled the second one would be hot and ready to be used saving time. The entire iron heated up including the handle; this made the task even more difficult because something had to be wrapped around the handle so the women ironing would not burn her hand.
After ironing, the garment was neatly folded and put away. Hangers and closets were not around to protect a garment like they do now.