How People Used to Wash: The Fascinating History of Laundry
Washing is as easy as throwing your dirty clothes on the floor, gathering them up a few days later, tossing them into the machine, and pressing a few buttons, right? While that may be the standard of washing in many locations today, I’m sure you’re aware that this hasn’t always been – and still isn’t in many places – the reality. Indeed, early civilisations often found themselves laboriously washing clothes down by the local river, a tiring yet effective method still practised in many areas today, where one can observe extensive washing taking place at popular locations including the banks of the Ganges and Lake Victoria. Yet while this ancient laundry method is still widely practised and unlikely to fall out of favour anytime soon, there’s no doubt that many other washing methods, nourished by varying degrees of popularity and effectiveness, have emerged throughout the ages – our very own Scrubba wash bag being a prime example!
We’ve decided to wring out all the facts on this surprisingly interesting topic, so to learn how people used to wash and how your very own ancestors may have once scrubbed away at their favourite outfits, check out the timeline below.
Washing in the ancient world. Water is the source of life:
It’s no secret why most Ancient Civilisations developed around at least one source of water. Vital for a number of aspects of everyday life, including hydration, food supply, transportation, and crop irrigation, water systems were of course also used extensively for cleaning both people and the clothes they wore. Garments were typically beaten over rocks, scrubbed with abrasive sand or stone, and pounded underfoot or with wooden implements. Poorer members of the community likely had little variety when it came to clothing choice, and many garments may have remained largely unwashed as they were passed down through the generations.
As with many other pursuits, the Romans took this basic concept of washing and catapulted it into a commercial industry of unprecedented scale. Following the shift from homespun fabrics to more cheaply produced garments that allowed for larger wardrobes and more frequent toga changes, efficient laundry became a necessity. The demand was even further bolstered by the importance the Romans placed upon hygiene and physical appearance, and eventually the Roman fullers (cleaners who dyed, washed and dried clothes of all varieties) became indispensable to Roman life.
Before you celebrate the Roman’s ingenuity and liken their fuller shops to modern day laundromats, however, you should probably know that they washed the clothes they received in human urine collected from public restrooms. Although revolting by modern hygiene standards, urine, containing ammonia, was an important cleaning agent not only in Roman times, but also in Medieval Europe, when it was referred to as chamber-lye and commonly used as a stain-remover to dissolve grease, loosen dirt, and bleach yellowing fabrics. If you’re still convinced there must have been something preferable to human urine, you may be surprised to learn that soap, itself boasting an interesting and tumultuous history, wouldn’t become widely available until the 19th-century, leaving little option for the maids and cleaners of the day.
Washing in the Middle Ages. Washing away from the river:
As culture developed, population grew, and cities became booming urban centres, a river bed and a pile of rocks were no longer sufficient for many people. Several items designed to aid with the washing process therefore become commonplace, including large wooden washtubs and dolly-tubs or possing-tubs – tall tubs in which clothes were beaten and stirred with a plunger. Washing in this period could be incredibly physically demanding and was often undertaken by poor servants and washerwomen on an irregular basis in a gruelling process known as the “great wash”. Indeed, the length and intensity of the washing process (the entire thing often took a few days involving a pre-wash, a 24 hour soaking period, a wash that took about 15 hours on account of the need to continually reheat the lye, a further wash of the lye-soaked linen, and finally a rinsing and drying process), coupled with the fact that people took pride in owning enough linen to avoid the need for frequent washes, made it preferable for households to wash everything at the same time every few weeks. It certainly can’t have been an event that the washers of the time looked forward to!
Washing during the Industrial Revolution. The Rise of the Washboard:
The advent of the Industrial Revolution is when washing finally starts to accrue some more recognisable characteristics. Indeed, the popular washboard, typically attributed to the Scandinavians, was greatly refined in 19th-century America following technological advances that saw the primitive rigid wooden frame improved with materials including fluted metal sheets and rubber. The washboard was small, portable, and effective, quickly propelling it to the status of household necessity. Its ease of use, coupled with the increasing accessibility and affordability of soap - fuelled by society's growing awareness of health and hygiene - also helped to cement the notion of regular washing cycles. This is evidenced by the popularity of the Monday wash day throughout the Victorian period, the logic being that clothes washed on Monday had plenty of time to be dried, pressed, aired and folded before Sunday.
The popularity of the humble washboard speaks for itself, but did you know that its staggering reputation was a colossal influence on our own Scrubba wash bag? Indeed, managing director, Ash Newland, was eager to bring the tool's effectiveness into the 21st-century to help travellers and outdoor enthusiasts wash around the globe, and it is along the principles of the old-fashioned washboard that he designed the Scrubba wash bag's internal, flexible washing mechanism.
Doing Laundry in the Present Day. More Advanced Technology:
As technological, scientific, and chemical advances continued to dominate the Victorian era, old methods of washing, at least throughout the English-speaking world and parts of Europe, were almost completely supplanted by revolutionary implements, soaps, and washing powders. This led to the first electric-powered washing machine in 1908 and the first automatic washing machines in 1951. Today, the washing machine remains a mainstay of many modern homes, along with countless other laundry tools designed to simplify and improve the quality of washing, including electronic driers, irons, and various clotheslines and other hanging devices.
As technology continues to improve within the home, it also begins to evolve with the rapid globalisation of today's fast-paced world. This has lead to multiple methods for effectively doing laundry while travelling, including our very own Scrubba wash bag. Equipped with a flexible, internal washboard designed to deliver a machine-quality wash in only three minutes, it promises to bring the laundry right into your home away from home - wherever that may be!
From riverside washing and humble washboards to advanced washing machine technology and our very own Scrubba wash bag, little has remained constant throughout the turbulent history of laundry besides the certainty that washing methods will continue to change and improve in accordance with global needs, as will our very own Scrubba product range.