I’m not looking to start a gender war here — just found myself musing as I researched a short article this morning. If doing the laundry had been men’s work lo those many centuries past, would we have had washing machines before we had a printing press?

Consider this. Before washing machines, doing the laundry was a two-day task. Women started soaking the clothes to be washed the night before. In the morning, the clothes were dragged out of the water, beaten with sticks, scrubbed on washboards, stirred in pots of water simmering over a fire, wrung out by feeding them through a wringer or be twisting them with the help of another person — then put through at least two more rinses, each of which had to be dragged from the pump, the stream or the faucet. The whole process took the better part of the day — and that was before the ironing.

The end result was clean clothes, aching muscles, irritated hands and irritated lungs — a lot of the chemicals used in doing laundry were unpleasant — to say the least. With all that work, it’s amazing that the first mechanical washing machines — not electric, now, just mechanical — didn’t appear on the scene till the mid-1800s. There were other tools, to be sure — washboards, wash paddles, wash tubs with plugs so they didn’t have to be tipped, even a wringer — but the actual washing was done by brute female — and usually lower class female — muscle power.

Contrast that with the work of painstakingly copying out books by hand, a task generally undertaken by monks and scribes — generally middle class and upper class males. Can’t help wondering if they were the ones doing the laundry, would we have had washing machines sooner?

photo credit © Nesster


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