A. POSSIBLE ACTIVITIES
1) Have children wash a few clothes, even doll clothes, by hand and hang them to dry. If you have a miniature
scrub-board, that is great. Remember that early in the 19th century, many people still washed clothes by beating
them with a paddle.
2) Older students can practice ironing, with adult supervision.
3) Show older children how to starch clothes.
4) Lye soap-making is not a craft for children due to the caustic nature of the lye. Students
CAN help with a glycerin-soap (melt in the microwave) soap craft.
5) Fill a gallon bucket or jug with water and let students take turns carrying it. If you had to carry every gallon
of water you used, how would it change the way you cleaned and bathed?
6) Polishing Silver. If you have any silver or copper, show children how to clean it. Silver was relatively less
expensive in the past and many people had at least silver-plate if not sterling silver.
7) Shine Shoes. In these days of tennis shoes, some children never learn how to polish shoes. Give them some
8) This is also a good time to show children how to make a bed, if they don't already know how to do so. Making a
19th century bed was a little more difficult at times, especially with a feather-bed, which had to be smoothed.
9) Beating Carpets. Before the vacuum cleaner, the only way to remove dust from carpets and rugs was the hang
them outside and beat them with a stick or carpet-beater. This is also a good exercise for younger children with too
laundress lye cistern bluing washboard dilemma
sad iron fluting iron chamber pot straw tick distilling leisure
still small beer starch scullery maid menial
Women's Christian Temperance Union (Movement)
bed clothes - sheets
feather bed- this could refer only to the actual feather mattress
C1 Reading - Early Elementary
What kinds of work does your mother do around your house?
Do you help clean? Do you help wash clothes? Can you wash dishes and sweep the floor?
Women in the 19th century had to do these same things, and even more. House work wasn't easy. Remember that
most people did not have running water, electric lights, or vacuum cleaners.
In the 19th century, women, children and servants did most of the housework. Many women had to work very hard.
There was a saying: "Man may work from sun to sun, but woman's work is never done." What do you think this
One important thing that most mothers do today is take care of their children. How does your mother care for you?
Most mothers in the past took care of their children, too. Sometimes they had another woman to help them.
Sometimes older sisters or brothers took care of little sisters or brothers.
C2 Intermediate & Advanced Reading
The 19th century middle-class woman was caught in a dilemma. Especially in the South and in upper-class society,
a woman was expected to live a life of leisure. All heavy and menial work was supposed to be done by servants.
Beautiful paintings showed elegant women in beautiful clothes. Even women's magazines showed ladies standing in
parlors, or sitting in gardens. They rarely showed women working. The reality, however, was often much different.
Most American women had to do at least some work.
In England, many ladies had servants who were well-trained and respectful. American servants were more
independent than their English counterparts, and were often untrained. They might leave at a moment’s notice and
sometimes did not respect class distinctions. Mistresses were annoyed when maids appeared in public wearing
clothing or hats that were better suited to an upper-class lady.
Today, some people make fun of homemakers. They think that keeping house is easy, because many people have
never really tried it. Few people thought that house-keeping was easy in the 19th century. A 19th century
homemaker had to have a wide range of knowledge. We have already studied food preparation, cookery, textile
production and sewing. Now we will look at other "women's work."
SIX DAYS A WEEK
While many of the tasks of the household were done on a weekly basis, some jobs recurred every day or at least
several times a week.
One of the first tasks that a woman might have to do was to blacken the stove or andirons. The blacking paste
would prevent the metal from rusting. The stove or fireplace might also have to be cleaned out, and the wood or
coal arranged and a new fire started. Working around the fireplace was a dirty job, and women had to be careful to
protect their clothes and the items in the room from being covered with soot. Maids in large homes were often
required to put sheets over expensive furniture before cleaning out the fireplace.
After breakfast, there were dishes to be washed. This meant heating water (sometimes hauling water). In a large
household, washing dishes was done by the scullery maid. In other homes, a maid or one of the women of the
family did this job. After the dishes were washed, dried and put away, the woman might go to clean the bedrooms.
One of the most unpleasant jobs was emptying and cleaning the chamber pots. As the privy (outhouse) was
outdoors, if a family member had to go to the bathroom during the night, he or she might use a ceramic chamber
pot. Every morning these had to be emptied in the privy then washed with hot water and returned to the room.
Then the bed had to be made. If the family was fortunate enough to have a feather mattress, the mattress had to
be patted smooth (or rolled smooth. Some beds had large "rolling pins" attached to the headboards to smooth the
mattress). Then the bed was made up for the day. Getting the bed smooth took a little more effort than it does
Some people dusted every day. Wood and coal-burning fires were very dusty and left soot on the furniture.
The the floor and carpets were swept. There were no vacuum cleaners, of course. Small rugs might be taken
outside and beaten to get the dust out. Carpets were taken outside once or twice a year and beaten.
Another daily task was washing the lamp chimneys. Every day the lamps must be collected and the soot-stained
chimneys washed. If candles were used, the wicks might have to be trimmed.
Occasionally the housewife or maid might mop the floor. In some frontier areas women used mops made of
cornhusks. In other areas, women got down on their knees and scrubbed the floor with brushes. Lye-water was
often used to scrub the floor, and a clean floor is often described as being "snowy white" from being bleached with
If the family lived on the farm, the wife might have jobs relating to the animals or the dairy. She might have the
care of a flock of poultry and deal with eggs, meat and feathers. She might milk, strain the milk, and set the milk for
the cream to rise. Then she would skim the cream for use in butter-making or to sell. Of course any pans related
to milk-processing were usually scrubbed and scalded.
In many homes the mother had at least some childcare duties. Wealthier families might hire a nurse-maid to care
for the younger children and a governess or tutor to teach the older ones.
In many homes, however, the mothers had the responsibility to care for and protect their little ones from danger
(the fireplace, candles, sharp objects, poisons, animals, wells) and sometimes to teach them as well. As we shall
see in the next chapter, mothers were also responsible for tending sick and injured children.
THE WEEKLY WORKDAYS
In addition to these daily tasks, most women had one day a week set aside for special jobs. The exact days for
these tasks differed.
MONDAY WAS WASHDAY
Traditionally, many women washed clothes on Monday, so that they would have the rest of the week to dry, starch
and iron them. Some have suggested that the name "blue Monday" came either from women's attitude toward this
hard and tiring job, or from the bags of bluing they used in the water.
First, the clothes had to be washed. In the early years of the 19th century, some frontiers-women washed their
clothing by beating them with a paddle or against a rock in a river. Later, most women washed with scrub-boards in
large metal kettles heated either over a fire in the yard or a boiler in a laundry house. The water for the washing
might have to be hauled from a spring or well.....and washing required about 40 gallons of water.
Clothes were frequently soaked before being washed. Families too poor to have soap may have soaked their
clothes in a solution of lye-water (made from ashes) or just in rainwater. Some clothes, such as whites, were boiled
in soapy water to clean them. The clothes were then lifted from the pot and rinsed in another pot, then rung out
and put on the line to dry. Have you ever picked up soaking-wet clothes? They're VERY heavy. That's why the
wringer was such a major innovation. It pressed the water from the clothes, making them lighter to handle.
White clothes might also be rinsed in a pot of water containing a little bluing. The light blue dye made the clothes
After a full day of washing, women were exhausted. It is no surprise that any family that possibly could afford to do
so hired a laundress.
A fluting iron for ironing pleats into ruffles on clothes.
TUESDAY WAS IRONING DAY
On Tuesday, the rough-dry clothes were ironed. Starch had to be cooked on the stove, and some items hot-
starched, while other items were cold starched. After drying, the clothes were sprinkled with water and then ironed.
Some irons were simply solid iron. They were heated on the stove or before the fire, the handles wrapped with
cloth and the front wiped to remove any soot. These frequently weighed 5 or 6 pounds. Later, there were various
improvements in irons. Some irons had detachable wooden handles that remained cool while the base heated on
the stove; some later irons were even powered by gas. Ruffles on petticoats might be run through a fluting iron to
iron tiny crimps into them. Some working women, called French laundresses, specialized in washing and ironing
WEDNESDAY WAS MENDING DAY
Some women did their mending on Wednesday. Any rips and tears in clothing had to be fixed. Sock that were torn
were mended with the use of a darning egg.
THURSDAY WAS MARKETING OR BREWING DAY
Many Protestant Christians are surprised by the fact that our ancestors drank alcohol, but given the circumstances
it was understandable. In some areas, water was impure, carrying diseases like cholera and typhoid. People knew
that water was not always safe to drink. Many early 19th century housewives knew how to brew low-alcohol small
beer, wine from local fruit and berries, and cordials for illness.
Beer was a favorite drink early on. “Small Beer” was a low-alcohol beer that was even drunk by children.
Homemade wine, cordials and cider were also very common drinks and housewives were expected to know how to
brew and distill. Drinking low-alcohol and home-made beverages was acceptable, even in most Protestant
denominations, until the temperance movement of the 19th century. The temperance movement blamed many
social problems on alcoholism and encouraged people to pledge to teetotalism.
The Temperance Movement of the 19th century brought this to an end in many areas. Many women came to
believe that many of society's problems was due to the use of alcohol, so that encouraged people to become
teetotallers and give up alcohol. The increasing safety of water and the availability of other beverages eventually
made it unnecessary for women to make alcohol.
FRIDAY WAS CLEANING DAY
Any extra cleaning was done on Fridays.
SATURDAY WAS BAKING DAY.
Baking in a brick oven took a little more effort than it does today, so some women baked only once a week. The
housewife had to warm the oven with coals and then brush out the coals. She might bake her bread and any pies
or other treats on Saturday, and then put them in the pantry or pie safe until needed. Cast iron cook-stoves made
baking a little convenient.
EXTRA CLEANING AND SPECIAL TASKS
In addition to these jobs, most women juggled special cleaning and tasks.
Soap-making * CAUTION* Do NOT try this at home. LYE is an extremely *basic substance and can cause
severe burns. Only adults should handle lye. *basic = on the pH scale, the opposite of an acid, but just
Some women made their own soap. The family would save wood ashes from the fireplace, put them in a barrel,
and drip rain-water through them to form lye. When the lye was strong enough to float a potato or egg, the woman
brought out the animal fat that she had rendered. She mixed lye, water, and animal fat in a large kettle outdoors,
stirring the mixture constantly. If she had judged the lye's strength correctly, then these ingredients would
eventually react together to form a thick, custard-like soap. She would pour it into molds, let it set, and then unmold
it to dry. After a month, the soap was ready for use. If it had not been mixed correctly, or was used too soon, then it
might have a strong "bite" that would sting.
Another possibility was that the soap might never "trace" or turn thick. Then the housewife had a batch of soft-
soap. Some women apparently made soft-soap on purpose rather than taking the time to let it harden.
During the late 19th century commercially-made lye became available. This was popular, as the woman could know
the exact strength of the chemical. This made soap-making a more exact science.
Both soap and candles required animal fat, and some families were forced to choose between cleanliness and
light. If available, tallow (beef fat) was used to make candles while lard (pork fat) was used for soap. Candles could
also be made from beeswax or the wax from certain plants and berries. Candles might be dipped, or might be made
in tin molds.
Candles could also be purchased, although thrifty housewives continued to make their own.
Candles were valuable and were NOT usually wasted. Only the wealthy could afford to have numerous candles
burning at the same time.
Washing and Re-filling Mattresses
During spring and fall cleaning some women emptied and refilled the mattresses, especially the straw-ticks. Clean
straw or hay was brought, and the fabric mattress-cover washed, dried, and refilled.
|VIII. CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS