Friday, October 7, 2011

The history of washing and ironing

Dollies and possers
I can well remember watching my grandmother using a posser, and even helping on occasion. It comprised a long stick with a heavy copper disc on the end. Those with three wooden legs were called Dollies: a feminine name perhaps emphasising the woman’s place in the kitchen, just as we often call a drying rack a clothes maiden. Their purpose was to agitate the cloth in a wash-tub or dolly-tub as it was often called, although there were regional variations on styles and names. They were particularly suitable for cotton sheets or towels which needed to steep in boiling hot water then be pumped up and down with the stick to circulate them and presumably dislodge the dirt. The cotton fabric needed to be fairly robust to take the beating. I should think the woman concerned would develop strong arm muscles as a result. But then washerwomen were expected to be tough and strong, and were considered very much at the bottom of the ladder when it came to class.

The finer clothes in a large household were the responsibility of the lady’s maid.

Strong muscles were also a necessity to push and pull the earliest box mangle back and forth with the leather straps or wooden handles. I would surmise that two laundry maids would be required for this task, one at each side. The weight of the box filled with stones, or sand, pressed household linens that were spread flat beneath the rollers, or else were wound about them.

The early 19th century saw a variety of newly invented mangles with a system of gears, wheels, and handles which were meant to lighten the laundry maid’s task by helping her to move this box. You could almost view it as an early rotary iron. An advertisement stated it was “An important improvement in the construction of the common mangle ... by Mr. Baker, of Fore Street, London, by which the otherwise unwieldy heavy box was moved with great facility backwards and forwards, by a continuous motion of the handle in one direction; and by the addition of a fly wheel to equalize the motion, a great amount muscular exertion is saved to the individual working the machine.” 

By 1823 we saw the invention of the upright mangle, which took up much less space and was therefore available for use in more humble homes. Mangles also became known as wringers, as rather than smoothing the cloth, they were now mainly expected to simply rid the clothes of water. Irons: Clothes then needed to be ironed.

No-one can say exactly when people started to press cloth smooth, but we know that the Chinese were using pans filled with hot coals for the purpose more than a thousand years ago. Blacksmiths started making simple flat irons in the late Middle Ages, which continued to be in use for hundreds of years. I remember my grandma heating her flat irons on the hearth plate of her Lancashire range, warming one while she used the other. She had several, in fact, of various weights but all of them extremely heavy.

This is a picture of an ironing stove used to heat irons in the laundry of a large country house. Having tested one myself, I’d say the laundry maids would indeed need to have strong arms to even lift one, let alone swish it back and forth over a sheet.

Flat irons were often called sad iron (or sadiron) an old word meaning solid. In Scotland people used gusing (or goosing) irons, the name coming from the goose-neck curve in the handle. The charcoal or box iron had a hinged lid which you lifted so that you could fill the container with hot coals. The air holes kept the charcoal smouldering. They generally came with their own stand.

Then there were goffering, crimping and fluting irons which were meant for frilled cuffs and collars, and for the many ribbons, trimmings and intricate ruffles on a Victorian gown, which were, of course, a sign of status. No well-dressed infant could be seen out without her bonnet trimmed with Italian-ironed double frills. Irons had to be kept immaculately clean and polished, and regularly greased to avoid rusting. The temperature had to be constantly checked otherwise the fabric could be scorched. My Gran used to spit on hers, not being a lady of quality. Some would hold it close to their cheek, a somewhat risky procedure described in The Old Curiosity Shop.

I, for one, am extremely grateful for the washing machine, tumble dryer, steam iron and all the other modern devices we so take for granted.


margaret blake said...

Yes, Freda, I can remember my mother using a "dolly" and turning the mangle on a Friday night. The good old days? I don't think so!

Deborah Swift said...

Brilliant post, brings back memories of my grandmother. Thanks so much for posting.