Women’s Work is Never Done


One of the weekly chores that took a lot of time and effort in the Erwin households in the early days was doing the family washing. Until the early 1900s the common practice was to boil soiled clothing outdoors in a big cast iron pot. On wash day a fire was built under the pot – with a little water in the bottom to keep it from cracking – and as the pot was heated water was added. If the family was fortunate enough to have a stream close by the women would do their work on the bank of the stream, but if not they would have to draw the necessary water from a well. While the water was heating the clothes were rinsed in cold water to remove some of the dirt. If there were stubborn spots, such as dirt on their men’s pants, they would be scrubbed on a scrub-board or on a flat rock. When the water boiled soap would be added. In the 1750s colonial era, in fact for the next hundred years or so, the soap used in country households was homemade from animal fat and ashes.

The next step would be to boil the clothes for about twenty minutes. The pot was stirred every so often with a large wooden paddle, allowing the soap to work through completely. What was being washed depended on how long it would be boiled. Men’s work clothing would, of course, require more time in the boiling water than a load of the family underclothing. When it was time to take the clothes out they were removed with the paddle and put into a tub of cold water for a first rinse.  After the first rinse they were wrung out by hand and then the process was repeated two more times in clean water.

It was a common practice to boil the least dirty items first, progressing down to the most soiled items last, usually without changing the water in the hot water pot. Water and soap would  be added as necessary to the pot over the fire as the wash day progressed, and one person – usually a younger member of the family – would be designated to add wood to the fire in order to keep the water boiling. As the wash day progressed the clothes lines – probably strung between trees – gradually filled up.

The next step – also monumental – was the chore of ironing. All of the women’s dresses and aprons were ironed. The men’s work clothes were rarely ironed, but their Sunday white linen shirts would have been given the same attention as the frilly blouses of the women. Flat irons of various shapes and sizes were used, but the average iron weighed about four pounds. The smaller and lighter ones were used for ruffles and fancy items. They were heated on a cast iron plate in the fireplace in the cool months, and outside over a fire when the weather was hot. In later times they would be heated over the central woodstove or cooking range.  The average household probably had four or so irons so that as one iron became cool it could be returned to the hot surface and replaced by a hot one. The more desirable irons had a removable iron and wood handle that could be snapped off when it was being heated. A portable ironing table, or “board,” was used so that it could be set up close to where their heat source was. In the winter it most likely would have been next to a window that allowed enough light in for the task at hand, and in warmer times ironing was probably done under a tree in the yard or under a lean-to next to the house.

So ladies, aren’t you glad that you live in the 21st Century?