illustrated image of a woman doing laundry

How Laundry Has Evolved From Ancient History to Present Day

Doing laundry has been a part of everyday life ever since humans began wearing clothing made of fabrics. Nowadays, laundry hardly takes time to do and barely any physical effort needs to be made to wash dirty clothes. However, this wasn’t always the case.

In today’s post, we look at how the process of doing laundry has evolved over the years. Generally, doing laundry involves washing dirty clothes, drying and ironing them but, this post focuses mainly on the washing process. Here, we will look at the different methods humans around the world used to clean their clothes and at the various detergents and tools used for the process.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the world of laundry.

The Need for Washing Clothes

Before we discuss how people did their laundry in different historical periods, let’s understand when and why people started doing laundry in the first place.

Humans first started wearing clothes sometime around 200,000 years ago, but at that time, their clothes were made of animal skin, fur, bones and even leaves. They would presumably discard them once they started rotting. Over time, however, humankind learnt how to extract different fibres from plants and animals to make fabric. These fabrics allowed them to create more durable clothes. And that was when the need to do laundry also arose.

illustration of a woman doing her laundry by the river
Image Credit: Lydian Naturals

Making clothes was time-consuming and the required materials weren’t always affordable for everyone. It was no longer possible to easily discard textiles whenever they were drenched in sweat, give out a foul odour and be covered in dirt, grease or body lice.  As such, mankind had to find a way to re-use their clothes and textiles. And so, the concept of washing and laundry developed. With time, the development of the concept of hygiene and improvements in innovation and technology, the process of doing laundry advanced further.

Now let’s look at the different ways laundry was done throughout history.

Washing Clothes in Ancient Times

Civilizations throughout history can most often be seen being developed in proximity to a water source. Water is needed for drinking, cooking, trading, transport and chores such as cleaning. Bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, ponds, seas, etc. were places where people gathered together and washed their clothes together. They acted as communal spaces for getting laundry done.

In ancient times, clothes were washed by the rivers by pounding them against rocks and other abrasive surfaces, either by hand or feet.  Initially, clothes were only washed using clean water, without the use of any cleaning agent. They were first soaked, then pounded and finally rinsed. The beating, pounding, twisting and slapping of the clothes on surfaces helped shake the dirt off them.

Then, over time, people realized that adding specific substances to the water proved more effective in cleaning the fabrics.  So, in addition to the beating and pounding techniques, they also added these newfound substances.

As the ancient method of washing clothes often required people to pound heavy clothes with a lot of strength and power over prolonged periods of time, it was the men who were assigned to the task of doing laundry.

Most of these soaps were used solely to wash clothing and fibres. They weren’t used for personal hygiene.

Ancient Detergents

Detergent is a product of the modern day. In ancient times, some of the most common cleaning agents used for laundry were basic soap, lye, chamber lye, and natural soaps.

Lye was made by boiling ash in water. It would create an alkali solution that would loosen the dirt stuck to the fibres.

Basic soap is made by heating animal fat or oil with lye and salt. The earliest historical evidence for the process of making soap comes from ancient Babylon. Archaeologists found soap-like substances found in clay cylinders that date back to around 2800 BC. The script found etched onto the cylinders seemingly translates to ‘fats boiled with ashes. Which is the basic recipe for making soap.

The term soap, in fact, comes from an ancient Roman legend that features a fictional Mount Sapo. According to the legend, animals were sacrificed to the Gods by burning them atop Mount Sapo. When it rained, the water would wash down the melted fats and ashes down to the river below. In reality, women washing their clothes on the Tiber River found that beating their clothes on the ground and rocks there would clean their clothes better. This place was seemingly close to where the fabled Mount Sapo once existed.

soap made from animal fat
Soap made with animal fat. Image Credit: The Prairie Homstead

The other cleaning agent was chamber lye. This substance was discovered by the ancient Romans and served as a powerful stain remover. Chamber lye is just a fancy term for stale urine. Yes, you read that right. In Rome, urine was collected from the chamber pots in the public toilets, then it was left out for a couple of days to ferment. Concentrated urine contains high levels of ammonia, which was the chemical that helped remove tough stains. This method was used, mainly in the western world up until the 19th century.

Laundry in Ancient Civilizations

Hieroglyphic symbols from ancient Egypt serve as evidence to show that the ancient Egyptians used to wash their clothes by repeatedly stomping on them with their feet. They even had special bats to beat the clothes and special rocks reserved solely for washing clothes. Like other civilizations, they also used a version of ancient soap, as archaeologists have found soap-like substances from Egyptian laundries dating back to 2000 BC. But, they also used lye and salts like natron, which was also used for the mummification process.

Ancient Rome is another civilization that often comes when discussing the history of laundry as the concept of offering laundry services to the public comes from there.

The ancient Romans wore woollen clothes as their daily attire as wool was the most widely available material. The heavy materials in the warm Mediterranean climate would produce a lot of sweat and body odours, so, the clothes had to be washed frequently.

Men known as fullones were in charge of washing clothes for the Roman population. Chamber lye was the detergent of choice in ancient Rome. To wash, fullones would first soap the clothes with chamber lye and water, then they’d pound and stomp on them, wring them out and then finally rinse with clean water.

an ancient fullonica from pompeii
Fullonica, the place where fullones used to wash clothes. Fullonica in Pompeii. Image Credit: World History

The fullones were professionals of the time but, in cultures that didn’t have a laundry service, people had to do their own laundry. Being a laborious process, proper laundry was only done a few times each year. Though undergarments and everyday clothing were washed frequently by simply hand washing them in hot water.

In Eastern civilizations such as the Chinese Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 BC to 220 BC, fabrics such as silk, which were very delicate, were washed using the pulp of soapberries.

The Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire, fullones no longer retained their fame and most people did their laundry by themselves. It was also in this era that women took over the role of washing clothes. In this period, many places in Europe saw the emergence of lavoirs or, communal washing establishments. Alternatively, they washed their clothes by the river like in ancient times.

a medieval lavoir with stone water holding places
A medieval Lavoir. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

During this time, people also started learning about the benefits of using hot water for washing clothes. Some cultures, such as the ancient Egyptians, had already known about washing with boiling water before the Middle Ages but, in this period, the knowledge became more common.  They found that boiling water was particularly effective for removing grease.

Also, during the Middle Ages, the process of making soap developed as vegetable oil-based soaps were made instead of animal fat. These soaps were less harsh and had a pleasant smell. The Aleppo soap imported to Europe from Syria, for example, was made of olive oil and perfumed with laurel oil. By the 7th century, countries such as France, Italy and Spain began producing these soaps as they had abundant olive oil.

The soap-making process advanced and they were labelled as luxury products due to their popularity with the upper class. So, commoners had to resort to using urine and lye as detergent.

Cleanliness was seemingly reserved for the wealthy. Nevertheless, contrary to popular belief, people in the Medieval era did wash their clothes. It was only the very pious people who refrained from washing themselves or their clothes. Devout medieval Christians believed washing was a sign of overindulging in self. And, some saints believed that refraining from being clean caused suffering and therefore showed their devotion to God through their suffering.

Early Modern Era

The early modern era, which refers to the time period between the 15th and the 18th century, was a revolutionary period for laundry. This era saw the invention of tools specifically designed to catalyse the washing process.

In this era, the wealthier families would employ a laundress while the poorer population continued to do their own laundry.

Washing clothes in rivers was still a common practice, at least in the initial few decades of this period. What was new now was that women would carry tools such as wooden washing bats called beetles. These were used to beat the clothes against a surface, like before, only with more force to agitate the dirt and grease. For the best results, women would soak their clothes in detergent beforehand.

New Detergents

soapwort plant with light pink flowers
Soapwort. Image Credit: New York Times

The types of detergents didn’t change but there were some additions made to the list. Natural soaps became more popular in this era. For instance, soapwort, a plant that originally grew in northern Europe, was introduced to England by monks and by the late 16th century, it was widely used as a detergent. The leaves of soapwort were crushed to produce a substance that would lather like soap. It is particularly useful for washing delicate fabrics.

Another plant that was used was oregano. It was used during the rinsing process to add a pleasant perfume to the freshly washed clothing.

New Laundry Methods

New laundry methods were also developed in this era. A process called bucking was developed to maintain white clothes. Coloured clothing wasn’t as common as it is today, so it was pivotal to maintain white fabrics. Bucking was done by soaking the dirty clothes in either hot or cold lye. Alternatively, ash and urine were used. These would remove tough and visible stains from white clothes.

Clothes were also bleached to brighten the clothes by using lemon juice on the stains. Once the clothes were washed, they’d be left to dry under the bright sun on the grass. This grass was specially cut for drying and the patch was named drying green.

New Tools

Over time, people began relocating to urban areas from rural ones, meaning rivers and larger water bodies weren’t easily available for washing clothes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, pieces of equipment such as wooden washtubs, dolly tubs and possing-tubs had become useful for holding large amounts of water and washing in them. Long wooden sticks with conical endings called dollies were used to pound the clothes inside the bucket. Later, the conical plunger-like endings were replaced with pegs so the clothes could be beaten and tumbled.

vintage manual washing tools
Dolly tubs, dollie stick and washboard. Image Credit: Pinterest

Another ingenious invention was the washboard. Some sources believe they were an invention of the Scandinavian countries as they were the ones who originally used to carve ridges on wood, but there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove this. There is evidence of the tool being patented in 1797 by James King, an American inventor. A washboard is a flat tool with ridges on one surface where the cloth lathered in soap can be rubbed to clean off dirt.

Modern Era to Present Day

At the advent of the industrial revolution, there were many inventions and attempts made before designing the modern-day washing machine. While the washing machine was on its way. Women continued using dolly tubs and washboards.

Washboards had become even more popular in this era and they even underwent some changes. What was initially made only of wood, was now made of zinc, steel, baked clay, stone and even glass.

a mangle from the 18th century
A mangle. Image Credit: dagrimshaw from Pixabay

The first mechanical invention in the world of laundry was the mangle. A mangle was a manually operated machine that used two rollers to squeeze out excess water. The clothes would be passed in between the rollers and they’d come out on the other side, ready to be hung for drying. Before this, laundry could take days to dry. That is why most laundresses did their laundry on Mondays, so they’d be ready to iron the clothes by the end of the week. In the 18th century, many of the wealthier families would own this machine.

Innovations in the World of Laundry

Also, in the 18th century, the quest to design the first washing machine began. The goal was to reduce the manual efforts, time and resources required to do laundry.

The first person to whom credit was given for inventing the washing machine is a German scientist named Jacob Christian Schaffer, who designed his model in 1767. Soon after, attempts to improve the washing machine were made by H. Sidgier, an inventor from Great Britain, in 1782. The design comprised a wooden cage and a handle. Inspired by this design, other companies contribute their ideas and designs to produce different mechanized tools to ease the process of washing. Then, in 1851, James King invented the revolving drum and, in 1858, Hamilton-Smith invented a revolving drum with a reversing action.  However, these designs couldn’t be used in real life, yet. The first functional washing machine was made in the late 19th century. This machine, however, proved to damage the clothes as it put too much strain and pressure on the fabrics.

sunlight bar soap in colourful packaging
Sunlight bar soap, one of the first commercial detergent bars. Image Credit: Catawiki

Also in the 19th century, chlorine, blue bleaches and detergents, and detergent bars were developed. Overall, advancements in chemistry and the soap-making process improved and they produced detergents that were stronger and more effective. This meant that the clothes no longer needed to be agitated as much as they used to be. Simply swirling them a couple of times would remove grime and dirt.

Early Washing Machines

a laundromat from the 1930s
A laundromat in the United States from 1930. Image Credit: Worthpoint

Washing machines developed during the 19th century were made of wood, had washers, handles, hinges, gears, levers and blades to make a simple machine.  They would have a tub for the base, rotating drums and a handle to turn a rod. Made by piecing up the inventions of the aforementioned inventors earlier. Machines were initially used in establishments providing laundry services, hospitals and finally, the homes of the wealthy.  Providing laundry services became common as the end of the 19th century saw an increase in the number of women being employed. Which meant that women could no longer spend time doing household chores like laundry. Also, an increasing population of the middle class and an increase in the number of clothes found in the wardrobe was observed. All these factors combined, generated a demand for laundry services.

Modern Washing Machines

thor, the first electric washing machine
Thor, the first electric-powered washing machine from 1907. Image Credit: Twitter

The first electric machine and the closest to resemble the modern washing machine came out between  1904 and 1906. Washing machines along with detergents were being heavily promoted by large corporations.

In the mid 20th century, laundromats, which offered automatic laundry services, became widespread. Presently, washing machines have become affordable enough for almost every household to own one. Today’s washing machines and laundry systems are advanced as being able to control the temperature of the water, agitation and speed. These features are constantly improving over time with advancements in technology.

The Importance of Doing Laundry

modern washing machines
Image Credit: Home Decor Ideas

As we saw, washing clothes and doing laundry has been a part of the daily routine since antiquity. Washing clothes is inevitable, at least as long as humankind wears clothes. Through education, we learn the importance of washing clothes frequently. After all, we do not want to come in contact with harmful bacteria and other microbes that may cause infections. And neither do we want mites, dirt, and body lice.

In this post, we not only learnt the history of doing laundry but also a little bit about the history of soap and detergent. We also learnt about the perception and standard of hygiene that many civilizations and time periods maintained. And, we learned about the marvels of human ingenuity.

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