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The Green Scene “February”

All Hands 01

The Conservation Balancing Act
“In the Laundry”

How many of you remember using a wringer washer or a scrub board to wash clothes?  Do you remember the saying “Man may work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done”.  How was laundry done in the Good Old Days?  Let’s visit laundry day at a family farm during the early part of the 20th Century.

Like most people in Florida during this time, Martha Brown lived on a farm near a small town.  It is Monday morning, wash day.  Martha learned how to wash clothes from her mother and the process is inflexible.  Martha knows that each step is necessary to have clean, bright clothes.  The appearance of her family’s clothes is a mark of success as a homemaker.  She and her neighbor often compare how white their washes look.

Wearing clothes until they were soiled was acceptable in earlier times.   By not having a large wardrobe and making frequent changes, there were fewer to wash and iron.  While the cleanliness standards are quite high, clothes are worn several days and washed no more than weekly.  Many clothes had ground-in-dirt and stains.  Almost everything in the family wash was cotton—except tablecloths and handkerchiefs which were linen.  All fabrics were natural for man-made fibers had not been invented.  Dyes were natural too, and were usually not color-fast.  Clothing types range from delicate embroidered, handmade items to heavy work clothes.

Consider what has to be done to produce clean, fresh-smelling clothes without today’s labor-saving devices, without hot running water, or without running water at all.

Here are the laundry principles that Martha kept in mind on laundry day in 1921.   They make me tired; how do you feel after reading them?

  1. Martha got up early to build a fire in her wood-burning kitchen stove.
  2. She carried water from rain barrels.  Three tubs were set up: one for washing and two for rinsing.  Rain water was used instead of well water because it was softer.  Heavily soiled items were soaked overnight to help loosen ground-in soil.
  3. Martha sorted the clothes allowing her to wash the cleanest clothes first because the same water was used again and again until all batches were washed and rinsed.  She had to carefully sort the clothes because most dyes were not colorfast; she used cool water on those to protect colors.
  4. While the water in the boiler was heating, Marsha made starch.  Powdered cornstarch was mixed with a little cold water, then boiling water was poured from a tea kettle. Quick stirring kept lumps from forming.  The starch was covered after cooking so film did not form and leave a starchy lump on clothes.
  5. By now the washing water was hot enough.  She put hot water into the wash tub for washing the first load of white clothes.  Her hands are tough from hard chores and are accustomed to the very hot water which made her white clothes whiter.  She used as hot water as she could stand because pure soap worked best with it.
  6. Now the hard work began.  She placed a bar of homemade soap and washboard in the tub.  She handled each item separately and rubbed soap over soiled areas.  She scrubbed until they were clean and then ran the bar of soap lightly over the rest of them.  Some dirt and soap stayed in the water as Martha rinsed each item in the wash water.  She then wrung out the excess water.  In some parts of the South, a battering board was used in place of a washboard.  Soiled clothes were placed on the battering board and beaten with a stick to loosen soil.
  7. The clothes from this first load go into the boiler on the stove to disinfect them.  While the water and clothes boiled for about 30 minutes, there was time to clean the clothes line with a damp cloth, place the clothes basket, and get the clothespin apron ready to use.
  8. After the first load had been boiled, Martha removed them with a wooden stick and put them in the first rinse tub.  She churned the clothes in the rinse water to get out as much leftover soap as possible.  If left it turns fabric yellow when ironed.  In the final rinse water, bluing was added to mask the gray and yellow soap left on the fabrics, making white fabrics look whiter.
  9. Then the clothes were put on the line to dry.  The whites were hung in bright sunlight while the colored were put in the shade.
  10. Each load of laundry went through the same process and in the end if the water looked clean enough, a load of throw rugs was washed.

So how did this process impact the environment? In warm months, the rinse water is poured in the garden or on the flowers.  Wash water was poured somewhere in the yard-the soap she made was completely “biodegrade,” though Martha never heard of the word.

Let’s relate the cleanliness formula to this laundry practice from the past.  The formula is Cleanliness = water + heat energy +chemical energy + physical energy.  There was very little cost to the laundry practices in the early 20th century because so much of the effort was provided by humans.  What was the environmental Impact?  Except in cities, environmental impacts were probably negligible.  Almost everything used in the laundry process in rural areas where most people lived was recycled.

Let’s compare this to today…  When we apply the cleanliness formula to today’s practices, it is estimated that our cost is over $400.00 a year to provide the water, sewer, heat, equipment, and chemical energy.  Environmentally, events of the past 20 to 30 years have brought about a slow recognition of both limited resources (water and energy) and environmental impact.  This is especially true of water which is often a non-renewable resource.

Want to consider how to make some changes in your laundry practices?  Go to and request the publication FCS8 OH 2010 to review ideas on how to make your own cleaning products.  Request additional materials at the Wakulla County Extension Office: 850-926-3931.


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