Historical Notes: The relentless tyranny of the sink

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The Independent Culture
DOWN THE ages traditional English laundry skills have always been the preserve of women. Long before the "whiter than white" virtues of Oxydol over Rinso wooed housewives from their copper boilers to the twin tub, there were devices trying to make the weekly wash less time-consuming and cumbersome.

The first washing machines were primitive affairs: just a barrel or buck with a false bottom and a spigot. Heavy household linens were layered carefully into the buck, propped by sturdy garden twigs that would carry the weight of sodden cloth, allowing the washing solution to course its way down over cuffs, ruffs and collars, already dipped in lye. These were placed downwards to catch the force of the detergent. "Leying the buck" was the traditional way of letting nature pre-soak away gathered grime but the result was only as good as the lye solution used.

When Celia Fiennes made her intrepid journey on horseback across Britain in the mid-17th century she saw fit to comment in her diary about the lye-making industry in the forest of Cannock Chase. She observed how the dried ferns were burned into ashes, mixed with grease and turned into lye balls. These were soaked overnight in rainwater: strained through muslin to provide the scouring liquid to be poured over the layered linens in the buck and left to soak through.

Never let it be said that Tudor or Stuart women did not take pride in pristine linen. Only the most destitute did not attempt some hand-scrubbing. Even a modest household was judged by the freshness of its linen. Whiteness was achieved by bleaching agents such as sunshine and urine. Ready-bleached fabrics were the sign of wealth and prestige, so any tricks to upgrade the whiteness of a collar were eagerly sought.

It was to the garden that the thrifty housewife resorted to find other lye solutions made from burnt hen or pigeon dung, wild flowers. Here were found the sticks and props to stretch out the linens to dry, taut in the wind and sun. Brides were presented with specially cut sticks to dry out nappies in anticipation of a happy event.

Then there was the whole process of soapmaking. The placing of the tanning yards were usually on the outskirts of a town, close to a water supply but downstream to ease the stench. Grease scraped from carcasses was rendered and boiled into a stinking lye by the soapmakers. Thrifty housewives also rendered their own version of household soap using fats mixed with traditional herbs like lavender.

The fashion for ruffs and stiff linen collars was a high laundry priority and the process of sizing and starching fabric an art in itself. There was often rivalry to produce the most efficacious lye rinses from bran water and ground hoof-parings. Each following generation found natural means to improve their fabrics; a strained potato water to clean silk, a tealeaf rinse for linens, sugar and water to stiffen paper nylon petticoats.

The price of cleanliness could be more costly than mere chapped hands. Parish records record the deaths of young girls; drowned fetching water from well and swollen stream, scalded by burning fat or splashings of lye, young children poisoned by drinking detergent. Who knows how many backs were put out of joint by the lifing of sodden loads.

A few remaining relics of original "bucks" may be found in bijou gardens. For nearly a hundred years this monument to 19th-century endeavour ruled supreme: queen of every wash-house in the urban backyard, with broadrollers like some ample heaving bosom out of which churned the weekly wash flattened to a cardboard.

Washing has been one of the most relentless of household duties. Homespun hempen cloth was heavy and tempting to ignore until ripe and fruity. The invention of mechanical "bucks" in the 20th century surely has done much to liberate women from the tyranny of the sink?

Helene Wiggin is author of `In the Heart of the Garden' (Flame, pounds 6.99)