Rinse and Repeat: Laundry in the Nineteenth Century: Background information when reading Longbourn

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker X
Longbourn by Jo Baker
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Oct 2013, 352 pages
    Jun 2014, 352 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

Buy This Book

About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Rinse and Repeat: Laundry in the Nineteenth Century

Print Review

In Longbourn, the housemaid Sarah's frustration with the laundry would have been shared by anyone who cleaned clothes during the early 19th century. Our modern process of sorting, dumping into a machine, pouring in soap, and pressing a button is an embarrasingly wonderful diminution of this once complicated and time-intensive process.

Nineteenth Century Woman Doing Laundry, Henry Robert Morland Doing the laundry during this period was such a daunting task that even mistresses of households that employed servants often pitched in. The wealthier families were able to employ servants who, like Sarah, focused mainly on laundry duties. For most families without dedicated laundresses, two days a week were set aside for doing laundry. Washing, boiling, and rinsing a standard load of laundry required around 50 gallons of water, which had to be hauled from a convenient water source.

Because cleaning laundry was so laborious a process, most people washed their undergarments only once a week. Women generally wore a simple sheath made from muslin or linen under their dresses to keep the dirt of daily wear from getting to their outer dresses. A dress made from wool or silk - fabrics that many of us choose to dry clean today - posed challenges during laundry time. Colors could run or fade. Fabrics could stretch or shrink. If a dress were particularly fine, laundry women would deconstruct the garment - removing buttons and trimming, picking the seams to remove the lining from the actual dress - wash each piece separately, dry, and then re-sew, correcting for any shrinkage or stretching as they stitched.

Bluing Agent for Laundry Pinafores, undergarments, and other items made from more robust fabrics, like linen or muslin, were usually left to soak in a tub of warm water overnight before cleaning commenced. Some laundry guides in this period suggested urine be added to the soak. Urine is high in ammonia, a common cleaning agent in modern soaps, and was reputed to be very effective in removing tough stains. The next morning, each item was scrubbed on a washboard with lye soap to remove stains. Lye is very good at dissolving stains but is very hard on the hands (and it would be another 150 years before rubber gloves were available for household use). Today, lye is rarely to be found in washing soaps but is usually the main ingredient in oven cleaners and products to unclog drains. Next, the clothes were placed in vats of boiling water and stirred repeatedly to keep the fabrics from developing yellow spots. Then, bluing - an agent that can still be purchased today - was added. Whites tend to go yellowish-grey with use, so adding a hint of blue (yellow's complementary color) counters this giving the appearance of whiter whites. Finally, the clothes were rinsed one more time, and hung to dry which, in the case of large houses, would have been either outside or in heated drying rooms.

These methods for cleaning clothes were followed for centuries until the mid-19th century when hand-crank devices attached to drums were patented. Though these helped to shorten the process, they still required a lot of labor. Electric washing machines started to appear in the early 20th century. By 1940, six out of every ten homes in the USA that had electricity had an electric washing machine.

Picture of lady doing wash by Henry Robert Morland from Wikipedia.com
Picture of bluing agent from flapperdays.blogspot.com

This article was originally published in October 2013, and has been updated for the June 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Immortalists
    The Immortalists
    by Chloe Benjamin
    On a summer day in 1969 in New York City, the Gold children agree to seek out a mysterious ...
  • Book Jacket: The Kites
    The Kites
    by Romain Gary, Miranda Richmond Mouillot
    Published by New Directions for the first time in English, Romain Gary's The Kites tells a story of ...
  • Book Jacket: The Kites
    The Kites
    by Romain Gary, Miranda Richmond Mouillot
    Published by New Directions for the first time in English, Romain Gary's The Kites tells a story of ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Hearts of Men
    by Nickolas Butler
    Set mostly in the woodlands of north Wisconsin, Nikolas Butler spins a familial saga that explores ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

A story that is at once quirky, charming, heartbreaking, suspenseful and poignant.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Days When Birds Come Back
    by Deborah Reed

    A graceful testament to endurance, rebuilding, and the possibilities of coming home.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Driest Season

Win One of 50 Copies of This Exceptional Debut!

A deeply affecting story of loss, heartache, and—finally—hope.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

A J O A Thousand M B W O S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.