Washerman’s itch, vermin, TB and scarlet fever: the perils of the laundress

Laundry carriers in Aberdeen (Aberdeen City Libraries)

Laundry carriers in Aberdeen
(Aberdeen City Libraries)

 

Before washing machines the weekly wash was a major event as many a household manual will testify. Fabrics tended to be heavy…very heavy when wet. Woollens, flannels, cotton, muslin, lace, prints, cretonne, silks… all sorts of fabrics requiring special treatment: handkerchiefs, shawls, stockings, sashes, ribbons …you get the idea. Women worked with scalding hot water and freezing temperatures in those outside tenement washhouses and in wringing wet clothes and bedding through a mangle in the back green then hanging it all out to dry.

Washday might begin the previous evening with the steeping of soiled articles. Then it was a case of up well before dawn to fill the washhouse boiler with pails of cold water and light the fire beneath it; soap, very likely from Soapie Ogston, already shredded into a jar of water and melted into jelly. This along with washing soda and starch – hot, cold or gum – were in every working woman’s armoury. Heated water was scooped into wooden sinks for soaking or washing coloureds and woollens while whites would be boiled directly in the boiler. Before detergents, dirty and stained linen was scrubbed clean on a washboard, extremely tiring, as was agitating the wooden dolly to plunge the washing. Every clean rinse took several bucketfuls of water. Whites were treated with washing blue, a cube of bleach wrapped in muslin, thanks to Scottish chemist and friend of Burns, Charles Tennant who created the first bleaching powder commercialised a century later in 1897.

As the population of Aberdeen expanded so did its hotels and boarding houses for travellers and weekly boarders. How could an entrepreneurial mind fail to recognise a business opportunity in the mountains of bed linen produced as a result?

The lack of domestic running water in the past created difficulties with cleaning and while today we link dirt with disease until Pasteur and Koch presented their research into germs in the 1860s and ‘70s no such relationship had been made. For people living cheek by jowl and without sewers and safe drinking water life meant running the gauntlet of numerous fatal illnesses; Aberdeen’s own Professor Alexander Ogston continued important work into the identification of staphylococci.

The notion of cleanliness might not have been associated with hygiene but it did take on social significance as a further distinguishing feature between rich and poor. The aspiring and the wealthy desired clean clothing and bedding and it was someone else’s job to provide it. Domestic staff included a laundress…live-in or hired once or twice weekly. For working class women there was a living to be made from taking in other peoples’ washing. Some advertised in the local Post Office Directories, others would spread the word by mouth. But even in this apparent innocuous occupation dangers were lurking.

A special commission published in The Lancet in 1877 pinpointed laundry handled by washerwomen as a significant source of smallpox. Washerwomen were susceptible to contamination from soiled linen and in turn they were likely to be carriers of disease. And not only smallpox. Scarlet fever and tuberculosis were widespread among laundresses.

Smallpox claimed the lives of several Aberdonians during the 1870s and at the end of this decade Aberdeen Steam Laundry was launched, the city’s first commercial laundry, opening in May 1879. A ‘select company of ladies and gentlemen’, including Lord Provost Jamieson, made their way to Claremont Street to hear reassurances from its Directors that ‘all the bad features of public steam laundries have been got rid of’ – a reference to careless handling of linen rather than any hygiene worries and promising to make washing day a thing of the past in Aberdeen – for a few perhaps. The forty people employed at the Claremont serviced city businesses but the majority of people could not afford the luxury of a laundry.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry Claremont Street

Aberdeen Steam Laundry
Claremont Street

There was great anticipation however at its opening and William Clark, an old hand in the workings of steam laundries in England, and his staff of ‘neat and tidy maids and dames’, including the manageress Miss Porter, led the official tour of the washhouse with its steam washers and range of hand tubs, boilers, rinsing vessels, hydro-extractors and so on. Outside there was ample space for open air drying and traditional grass bleaching but the laundry also had indoor drying and airing facilities with fans circulating currents of hot air.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry, believed to be the earliest in Scotland, need have had no concerns over its durability for it was still operating a century later – its 120 foot chimney (erected in 1917) was demolished in 1977. Aside from washing, the laundry provided carpet beating and later French cleaning, dry cleaning and linen hire. It serviced the city’s hinterland by rail and road; north to Elgin, south to Stonehaven and west up Deeside but its principle business came from hotels, institutions, shipping and public companies, manufacturers, clubs etc who were charged 8/4 per hundred articles in those early years.

Incidentally the first BBC studio, set up in Aberdeen in 1923, transmitted via masts attached to Aberdeen Steam Laundry’s chimney at 40 Claremont Street.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry Ironing Room from Aberdeen Libraries Local Studies M45_22

Competition to the Claremont arrived in the form of the Bon-Accord Steam Laundry in 1886 at Craiginches, Nigg. It was also financed by a syndicate of local business and professional men. An astounding 400 guests were taken to what Aberdonians affectionately refer to as the Laundry Brae from Market Street in what would have been a trip to the outskirts of the city for tea, coffee, aerated waters and fruit to the accompaniment of the Aberdeen City Artillery Band. Of course there were the inevitable speeches with proud Chairman, Baillie Kinghorn waxing lyrical on the advantages of the 3-acre site removed as it was from the smoke and dust of the city with its abundant water supplies gathered from neighbouring hills and collected in a 6000 gallon holding tank – water pure and soft and filtered before touching a single garment.

In the 34 ft long sorting room items were given bright red identification numbers then stored on corresponding racks. The washing room, nearly twice as long was where the initial rinsing took place and if necessary an overnight soaking in big slate tanks before being placed in one of the state of the art perforated hexagonal concentric dash wheel washing machines. These early washers were slightly corrugated inside replicating the action of a washboard, again unique in Scotland, and the frequent changes of water during the washing process prevented dirt residues building up. Wet linen was fed through a wringer before a further soaking if necessary, in boiling water this time, then wrung and rinsed in a tank of filtered water. Whites would be treated with washing blue then put through the mangle or partly dried in a hydro extractor, an early form of spin dryer.

The 41ft long drying room was fitted with 22 closets; heated to 100 and 150 degrees, the cooler for blankets and flannels. In each closet a 12 ft iron clothes horse ran along double tracks so linen could be loaded and removed easily. Above, a further heated area was available for drying and stretching long curtains.

All the work was done without any form of protection, no rubber gloves for example and inevitably the washroom floor was slippery with soapy water. In the ironing room the problem was sweltering heat and hot scalding steam. Here in the 108ft long hall large rollers pressed sheets, curtains and tablecloths while smaller items were finished with a range of hand irons for calendaring and polishing collars and cuffs to give high gloss finishes and goffering pleated garments.

This impressive set-up cost just short of £7,000 including the building, machinery, horses and lorries and its costs were met by its 121 shareholders’ purchases of £1 shares.

The Directors were at pains to deny they were encroaching on any other business (meaning the Aberdeen Steam Laundry) maintaining there was plenty of work for both. This was possibly true for within a decade a third steam laundry, the Belmont in Chestnut Row, was up and running but such were its concerns that it sued (unsuccessfully) its former manager Robert Innes when he left them for their rival in Claremont Street.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry  ironing hall

Aberdeen Steam Laundry
ironing hall

Other city laundries were to follow among them the Empress and Stevenson’s both Seaforth Road; Borthwick’s of Gilcomston Steps and Holburn Street; City, Seagull, Hygienic, Whitehall – one of whose employees later recalled pushing baskets of linen on a trolley to out to Culter, a distance of several miles. Her pay day was a Monday, to ensure she and her fellow workers returned for work each week.

There were lots of smaller laundries. Who could resist Miss Green’s Snowdrift laundry? or Miss Hogg’s Victoria Hand laundry? It was clear than these home-workers satisfied a niche demand. Torry had one on Sinclair Road, King Street had Mrs Smith in Jasmine Terrace, Mrs Strachan was at Whitehall Place, the Finery laundry on Rosemount Place, Sunlight Hand laundry on Thistle Street and the Central Hand laundry and dye works on Crown Street. All followed in the footsteps of laundresses M. Petrie of Long-acre in 1828 and Mrs Rhind of Burn Court Upperkirkgate in 1850.

Working from home offered flexibility to women and they competed with company laundries in a sense but they would have drawn their customers from a different clientele.

Irrespective of where it was being done, laundry work was physically demanding and dirty. Even the mechanised systems in the company laundries offered little respite in that regard and the hours were long and gruelling. There were concerns about the extremes of temperature women had to work in, the hot, steamy washing and ironing rooms, the stifling heat of the drying halls, the frequent cold outdoor drying and bleaching greens and of course perpetually wet floors. This was especially true in bigger laundries where the hot steam in badly ventilated halls was suspected of causing phthisis (wasting of the body associated with tuberculosis of the lungs) among women and girls and there could be no argument over the high incidences of TB among laundresses. The main danger, however, lay in the sorting room where soiled items were carriers of disease. A bill went through parliament in 1873 to restrict women’s employment in commercial laundries within a month of having a baby such was the fear for mothers and their children but worry over profits superseded any such concerns and the legislation was delayed for 30 more years.

In an 1890s issue of the Aberdeen Journal weak young women enduring extreme temperature fluctuations at work were advised to dose themselves with Dr Williams’ pink Pills for Pale People as they were credited with having saved an English laundress ‘from the jaws of death.’

In addition to the ailments mentioned laundry workers were susceptible to dhobie or washerman’s itch, a form of ringworm caused by damp conditions. Its association with men doubtless comes from its prevalence in non-Western countries where laundering was often the work of men – think of Chinese laundries. Dhobie was contracted from dry laundry containing moulds and bacteria.

Infestations of vermin were a phenomenon of poverty and overcrowding so when cotton cloth became more widely available it assumed importance for being able to be boiled and so destroy, however briefly, disease carrying beasties in clothing and bedding.

A century after the first commercial laundry opened in Aberdeen five operated out of the city. The Claremont was still around, its catchment stretched from Shetland to Fife. Then there was the Gordon Cleaning Company, Modern Method Dry Cleaners, Silver City Cleaners and Stevenson’s –all with branches and agents operating widely. Notice the term ‘cleaners.’ Increasingly affordable domestic washing machines, the 1960s vogue for nylon shirts and sheets and commercial linen hire spelled the end for the old laundries but dry cleaning was carried out with toxic substances such as benzene, petrol or chemical solvents so unsuitable for the home.

And there was a new contender on the block, launderettes. Cheap and quick, they were popular with those who didn’t care about extra finishes.

We still do the washing but it has become a matter of popping clothes into a high-tech machine, adding detergent and closing the door. That’s it. Our fabrics are lighter and more manageable than ever. Gone is the hard, health sapping labour. Gone are the lice and fleas which spread so much disease. Even the hot steam has gone. The cold winds whipping around the ropes remain.

15 Feb 2012 010

6 Comments to “Washerman’s itch, vermin, TB and scarlet fever: the perils of the laundress”

  1. Lena — just discovered your blog — I love the way you do social history. Am writing my family history, trying to insert the personal in the social and political, and vice versa. Was actually searching for images and stories of beet sugar factories in Germany in the 1920s and 30s (my grandmother worked in one) and somehow came to your site. Glad I did! Your Ersatz article on 1930s Germany is excellent. And, as a small addition to the landscape of turn of the century laundry, my poor aunt suffered terrible arthritis from doing laundry by hand, some of it in the cold streams that ran though the village. I only have fragments of memory from relatives to work with, so building a narrative around them is challenging. Most of the fragments are about the men in the family. Sadly, predictably perhaps, women gloss over their (house)work as ‘ordinary’ and not worthy of story or history. I’m glad you’re unearthing the gaps and silences in your blog.

    • Good luck with your research and writing. Social media is an excellent vehicle to correct the misrepresentation of our past as a mainly male narrative. Every single person has something worth recording and we all live private lives within the greater scheme of things. Hope to read your articles in the future. Thank you for reading the blog., Lena.

  2. “…worry over profits superseded any such concerns and the legislation was delayed for 30 more years.” Some things never change.

  3. Excellent, interesting historical blog. Exactly the sort of thing I read this blog for. My granny (in Glasgow, I’m not from Aberdeen) used to take in Laundry as described above in the 1920’s to 1950’s. WIth the money she made she put her 3 girls and one son through College.

    • Thank you John. So many aspects of life in the near-past are unknown to the majority of us. Times change so quickly nowadays. I’m only happy to put the ‘little people’ into the bigger picture of history – those who actually toiled and suffered and endured, like your granny. They are the real heroes and heroines of British history – the ones who shaped our current place in things.

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