Thursday, 5 February 2015

A Country Wash Day in Australia in the 40's

"Today's Monday, today's Monday, Monday is washing day, 
Is everybody happy? You bet your life we are!"
~The Scaffold

Annabel from the lovely The Bluebirds Are Nesting blog has mentioned the concept of our home making equipment being our handmaidens, and how we put our handmaidens to work for us. She attributes this concept to Laine who used to blog at Laine's Letters which are held in archive here.

This concept of our home technology being our handmaidens got me to thinking about the days long ago, when home-caring technology was not as advanced as it is today. Recalled to my mind also, was an essay I read last October written by my cousin Audrey Lowe (my Dad's cousin actually). The essay from her book "A country childhood in the 1930's and 40's." was entitled “Washing Day” and described a typical country Monday at that point in time. Audrey wrote "While the milking was in progress in the bails some 500 yards down the hill matters were proceeding apace in the wash house" She then went on to explain the process for carrying out the weekly wash.

A fire was lit under the copper.
The copper was filled with water.
Instead of washing powder or liquid that we use today, slivers were cut from a bar of soap and added to the water.
When the water was brought to the boil, the first load of sheets were submersed into the water and the lid put on the copper. Just think of doing that nowadays in the heat of summer.

When they were taken out of the copper, all hot and steaming, the sheets were put into a slatted box sitting in a tub. Audrey doesn't say why but I think that was for draining the water out of the sheets. Then the sheets were put into a tub of clear water for the first rinsing of the sheets. Now I am wondering - was there plumbing in the wash house? Probably not, so all the water would have to be carried in. After the first rinse the sheets were rung out and then put into the next tub that had water blued with a “knob of Reckitt's Blue in its calico cover", which was used as a whitener. The sheets were rung again and then hung on the clothesline. Meanwhile another load of sheets are in the copper and the towels are soaking in a third tub. After the sheets the "tea towels, underclothes and other cottons and lines receive the same attention.."
Then it is time for breakfast.  - What, all this work on an empty stomach? But that's not all - following breakfast, it's time to wash the really soiled clothes. Of course they have to be rubbed on a wash board.

But wait - there's more! What about the starching? Audrey wrote about this too. "Some chunks of Silver Star starch are put in a basin and dissolved with cold water. Then boiling water is poured on and stirred. The result looks like thin glue. Doyleys and dressing table runners, some blouses, shirts and dresses are immersed in the starch. It acts as a mild stiffener and when ironed they can be described as being crisply starched."

Audrey wrote the weekly wash took four hours to do. How long would it take me I wonder?

Contrast this to my washing routine. I put the clothes in, put in the detergent, select the cycle and toddle off to do other things. Then once the cycle is finished I hang the clothes. No pre-soaking (I occasionally use a Spotless laundry soap if something has a stain but one bar lasts me for ages), definitely no starching and if I hang my clothes out to dry in a timely fashion I have only a small amount of ironing.

My modern washing machine is certainly another blessing well worth counting.


  1. Sherri, I was born in the late 1940s and still have recollections of coppers bubbling away and Reckitt's Blue and the starch. LOL. How times have changed.

    1. Chel, my earliest laundry memory is of the laundry being attached to the house but not part of it. You had to go out the back door and around a side path to go into the laundry. The washing machine had a mangle over it. I was a toddler at the time. And of course back then their was a longer path leading down the back yard to the lavatory.

  2. yes, i couldn't imagine doing all that either, i put my clothes on the night before & they are ready to hang out first thing in the morning, too easy! & i don't iron as i don't own an iron :))
    remember those chores wouldn't started at or before first light too
    great post, love a little history with my brekkie!
    thanx for sharing!

    1. Selina if I had to go through all those steps to do the washing, it would take me all week.

  3. I read of a similar experience in the book Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. It is a wonderful book, one of my favorites. In the book, Mildred Armstrong Kalish describes how they did many common everyday tasks then. When my children get to complaining, I tell them to peruse the chapter about children's chores and they sober up right quick. ;) We have much to be thankful for but also so much that we have lost in the modern world we live in.

    1. The top and bottom photos in my post were taken during the Great Depression. I remember reading that during the depression that many farmers did a little better than the average person because they were able to produce some of their own needs. I sometimes wonder how we would manage now days if we experienced another long depression. So many things we need and use in our day to day lives are produced overseas and in the western world so many people are employed in the service industry. In a long depression I assume very few people would be able to afford to use services and those in the service industry would be under employed or unemployed. It is an unsettling thought.