The Wild West of Yester-Year

The Way We Wash Our Clothes
By Rachel Kovaciny

The other week, my washing machine stopped working right in the middle of the final spin cycle. With an ominous clunk, it announced I’d put too many towels into its high-efficiency bowels. Or it had gotten dizzy from spinning the third load of the day. Whatever the cause, it refused to spin on, and left me with a whole load of sopping wet stuff I had to wring out by hand before I could put them in my electric dryer. Wringing out a whole load of laundry left my forearms sore and complaining for days. It gave me a new appreciation for my washing machine, an appliance I take for granted.

This got me curious how people did laundry in the Old West. I know a bit about historical laundry practices from reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books when I was younger, watching movies, and from visiting “living history” places such as Colonial Williamsburg here in Virginia. That left me with a vague notion of heating water, scrubbing clothes on boards, making soap out of lye and lard, and people beating clothes on rocks. My conception of laundry practices in the pioneer days needed clarification. So I did what I love best: I researched it. I looked up laundry practices online and in my motley collection of assorted books on life in the Old West. I hope you’re interested too, because I’m about to share my findings with you.

During the time we think of as the Cowboy Era, 1860-1880, people had a variety of ways of dealing with laundry. They all followed the same steps and required the same equipment. You needed one big tub, a way to heat water, soap, and somewhere to dry the clothes. You might make your own soap by boiling down ashes to make lye and mixing that with animal fat, then letting it harden for several months. You might buy soap flakes, or a bar of soap and scrape flakes off it. Wherever you got it from, you mixed it with hot water to create suds. If you lived in a place with hard water, you might add washing soda, or sodium carbonate to soften the water and make your soap sudsier. Or you might save rainwater for washing since it would be softer.

Once you had hot, soapy water in your tub, you’d put your dirty clothes in to soak. Scrub the stained ones on a metal or wooden washboard, then soak them more. Eventually, you’d wring all the clothes out, dump out the dirty water, and soak the clothes again, inside out this time. After a second ring-out (by hand, remember?) you’d rinse them to rid them of any remaining dirt, plus the soap. Nobody wants to wear soapy clothes! And you’d wring them out a third time. If you were lucky, you might own a mangle (now called a wringer). It had two big wooden rollers you could feed the wet clothes between, operated by a crank. It was a lot of work, but not as bad as wringing the clothes by hand. Mangles were available for sale before the American Civil War, but they were cumbersome and expensive, and not something your average pioneer or ranch owner would have.

If you had white clothes or linens to wash, you’d boil them separately. Once you had them clean, you’d hang them on your wash-line, if you had one. You might have a line strung between your house and an outbuilding, or between two trees. Or you might spread your clothes out on bushes or the prairie grasses to dry.Once your clothes had dried, you faced the horrible chore of ironing. It involved heavy flatirons heated on a blazing-hot stove. While I’m sure many pioneers didn’t bother with it unless they needed to dress up, plenty of folks living in towns and cities had that chore routinely. No wonder when Chinese immigrants set up laundries that took in washing, they were very successful.
Compared to all that, I guess I had it easy that day, having to wring out one load of towels and t-shirts while my husband took apart the washing machine and discovered nothing wrong with it aside from a bout of mechanical cantankerousness.

Next time I’m tempted to complain that my kids have filled up the hamper already, I’ll try to remember it could be worse. I could have to wring all those clothes out three times each.