What Is The History Of Washing Clothing

What is the History of Washing Clothing?

Wash Day on the Farm

So What is the History of Washing Clothing anyway? Since people began wearing clothing, we have needed a way to wash and clean the clothes they wear; for hygienic reasons, if not to keep down the body lice and distasteful smells. The commoners throughout history were accustomed to the mutual bad smells among themselves.  The wealthy upper class however at least attempted a modicum of dignity by masking those smells through candles, rosewater, potpourri, and handkerchiefs scented with perfume. But how did we go from river banks with rocks, to an electric washing machine?

Clothing of the Early Time Periods:

From 1400 to 1500 A.D., wool was sheered from sheep to be woven into lengths of cloth. This was the most popular fabric used for clothing people at the time. It provided warmth and protection while not creating a suffocating barrier from the elements. This also meant that the fibers retained smells, and would hang on to stains.

Following this was linen, made from the fibers of flax and hemp plants. Cotton pulled from a cotton plant was also used, but the process for making fabric lengths was much more detailed and time-consuming. These natural fibers have the ability to allow air to pass through, or “breathe”. This does cause them to shrink from their original size easily, however.

Care must be taken with the washing that isn’t just simple surface cleaning.  The fibers that we have available today are numerous and varied. The original natural fiber sources still remain the favorite among fashion designers and wearers alike though.


Wash Day From The Past:

Before the time of washing machines, the project of wash day was often done in rivers. At that time it was considered “women’s work”.  Because it was associated with women in the home, it often became a group activity complete with children playing. Laundry could be found draped everywhere to dry. Women could be observed heading to the river bed, manned with boards to scrub on and sticks to pound the cloth with. These laborers headed to the stream to beat the offending articles into submission. If they didn’t leave with a better smell they would hopefully have less crawling pests.

Clothing was often rubbed, twisted or hit against rocks. Sometimes a wooden bat called a washing beetle, combined with a washing tub, would be used to get the dirt out.

When the washing board was invented in 1797 it became the “more sophisticated” way to clean for a time. People then began boiling water above a fire and pouring it into a tub that they would then use to wash their clothing (tub washing). This was often accompanied by soap and homemade lye to bleach the clothes white and remove the ever-present grease.

The Making Of Soap:

Before the invention of today’s laundry cleaners, soap was made from boiled animal fat and lye to clean any clothing. Salt could also be added to form rough pumice like the texture and to produce bars easier to store and handle. Not surprisingly the laundress suffered the plight of chapped itchy hands and possible blisters because of it.

In areas where wood was plentiful, lye was made from water poured through wood ashes until it became “frothy”. People would often soak their clothing in lye to clean their white or off-white clothing. The process of soaking clothing in lye to dissolve the grease and loosen the dirt was called bucking.

Starch and bluing were also available to use for nicer clothing and linens to remove the stains, bleach them white again, and give them a good stiff gloss.

A sizing solution made from plants was also used on fabrics like cotton that wrinkled perpetually. This added body to the fabric where heavy stiffness was not wanted. This was a luxury however as the process was quite time-consuming.

Washing For Sanitation:

Enter the 1800’s and the discovery of germs brought about greater awareness and concerns about diseases and sanitation. This increased the desire for clean clothes and regular bathing. Quality dressing, and thus cleanliness, was the priority. It became associated with a higher social status as well.

In the western frontier towns of America, the women available to do laundry services were few and far between. And on the eastern shores of the country crowded apartments or confined dwellings prevented easy wash days. This was a drawback in the larger cities of the eastern shores.

At this time many Chinese immigrants were fleeing the Taiping Rebellion that affected their country and coming to America. This money making the trade was available. For the first time in history, cleaning clothes became a business opportunity.

The Invention Of The Washing Machine:

By the mid-1850s, steam-driven washing machines were being sold in both the United States and England. The person washing the clothes still had to ring out clothing by hand until the ringer machine was created, however. This ringer used two rollers to squeeze as much water as possible out of clothing. They were originally operated by hand but were eventually created as a power attachment above the washer.

Later, after the development of electric motors, came machines called extractors that spun clothing to remove excess water. Eventually, this became one device, known today as a washing machine.

Gas and electric dryers that we use today were invented soon after. No more tedious trips to and from the clothesline.

Dry Cleaning:

Dry cleaning is a cleaning process that uses chemical solvents rather than water to clean the garments. This method was used as early as the 1800’s to clean clothing that would shrink dramatically from water washing. Due to the loosely woven fabrics of the time, this was often a major concern.


In past history, those who could afford it hired a washerwoman, servant or laundry service to do the laundry. Today most people use modern washers and dryers to clean their clothes. Some people take their clothing to a dry cleaner for more professional looking results.

Because of industrialization, clothing is more affordable and easily accessible than it was in the past. In this day and age, people are known to replace their clothing more often. The museums of today dedicated to historical clothing that has been preserved for our knowledge leave a legacy of the history of society.

Without the care and preservation of those garments, we would be at a loss for what they looked like, and how they were worn on an everyday basis to shape civilization. This can lead us to the conclusion that a better-made garment, of proper fit and appropriate care, will last for generations.


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