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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Signs, Signs - Civil War Laundress - Battle of Buchanan III

(click on photo to enlarge)

Sorry if it's hard to read the "laundry list" ha...I really had to play with the contrast because it was written so lightly but I found it interesting so I wanted to share. Maybe you knew this already but I didn't. Many women followed the troops as a laundress. In a lot of cases there was nothing left for the women back home so they followed their husbands to do their laundry, and it was quite the coveted position. I am going to copy/paste the following info from About.com rather than give you the link because it's hard to follow with all those pesky ads...so here ya go:

"Laundry During the Civil War - The Civil War Laundress
The Invisible Women Behind the Troops

Unlike the highly organized and efficient Quartermaster Corp of today's Army which handles laundry for our troops, America's Civil War men in blue and grey relied upon the camp laundress. She often became one of the most respected and highest paid members of the camp for her basic, but important, work.

According to the Union Army's 1861 Military Handbook, only women of good character were allowed to be a laundress. Each woman had to obtain a "Certificate of Good Character" from Army headquarters before she was allowed to begin working. The laundress was usually married to or mother of one of the soldiers in the company with which she served. According to records, each Union company was allowed up to four laundresses while Confederate companies had up to seven laundresses. When broken down, this meant each Union laundress was responsible for mending and cleaning the clothes of around 20 men.

The salary of the laundress was paid by the Army by deducting the fees from the soldiers' pay. Each enlisted man had 50 cents withheld monthly, unmarried officers $1.00 to $2.00 monthly and married officers paid $4.00 monthly. If the officer's had family traveling or visiting with the company, additional fees were negotiated. For the men who could not afford to pay the fees, they washed their own clothes or simply wore them unwashed until the clothes fell apart.

The laundress was provided a tent, rations, a hatchet and services of the company surgeon. They were allowed to bring along their children, dogs and household items like beds, cribs and linens. In her "free time" she often assisted the doctor with wounded and sick men. "Suds Row" where the laundresses worked and lived was off-limits to the rest of the camp. The women did not move with the troops during sieges and battles but did move as a new camp was set.

The laundress was required to supply her own equipment and supplies. The basic supplies for each woman were two 25-gallon oak tubs (each weighed about 35 pounds when empty), buckets, iron cauldrons for heating water, fire grates, scrub boards, homemade soap, bluing, ropes for clothes lines, irons and sewing supplies.

These tools were crucial to her livelihood and had to be kept in good shape. The wooden tubs and buckets leaked if they were left to dry for too long, so they had to be soaked to keep them watertight. However, the water had to be changed often because if left too long, the wood became slimy and rotted. Irons had to be stored standing up to keep the bottoms smooth, clean, and free of rust. Wax was placed on the irons to keep them from rusting.

And, the laundress had to make her own soap by rendering animal fat and adding lye. Soap making was a day long process of stirring the soap while it "cooked" over an open fire. A few women did have access to soap from a company called Procter and Gamble. During the Civil War, the Cincinnati company won contracts to supply the Union Army with soap and candles. The military contracts introduced Procter and Gamble products to soldiers from all over the country. Once the war was over and the men returned home, they told their families about the company's products and launched their national, and then global, growth.

Doing laundry for the troops was, at best, a three to four day process for each load of clothes involving ten steps.

Mending by hand
Presoaking and stain removal
Washing in hot water
Scrubbing on the wash board
Boiling in hot water to kill insects
Rinsing three times in cool water
Bluing of white items
Drying
Ironing
Folding
Ironing was not included in the usual price. Each ironed shirt costs and extra three cents. Most of the troops saved their money for other things, but officers did pay for ironed shirts.

The job of laundress was hard labor under the conditions of weather and war. But the incentives that drew draw women to it were the pay and the opportunity to stay with her husband or son rather than endure a long or probable permanent separation."

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27 comments:

  1. It sounds like it was very hard work, but that is to be expected.

    I didn't know P&G dated that far back.

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  2. interesting post, I would not have like this job at all!

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  3. What horrible times those must have been for everyone.... so sad really.

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  4. When the soldiers came home after the war, the first thing was to give them a bath and burn the bug infested clothes so it was not too clean in reality. I suspect the officers were the ones with the clean uniforms. Some of the old men told my grandfather how they would fight over a rat for food when in the trenches around Richmond so they were not as well fed as the modern version looks. Not a good time for sure.

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  5. I don't think I would have enjoyed that job. I liked the last entry on the list, "ladies garments washed with discretion". And blueing. My mom used to put blueing in the rinse water tub back when she had a wringer washer. That was a few years ago.

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  6. Thank you for a very fascinating, informative post. I learned a lot.

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  7. Oh wow, this is really interesting! I could do with someone ironing stuff for me at the moment!

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  8. what a fascinating account - yes Asda is the UK offshoot of Walmart.

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  9. thanks for the education! and how p&g got started, as well!

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  10. Really extraordinary that the soldiers had to pay washing your clothes!

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  11. How interesting! I had no idea that the troops had laundresses. I didn't know that Procter and Gamble was around way back then and that's how they got started. I remember my mom and grandmother using bluing when I was a little girl.

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  12. Thanks for the interesting story!

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  13. Oh my gosh, how spoiled we are with our washing machines and dryers! Great post Tanya.

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  14. Hmm. I had to laugh at the hatchet. I guess it was for chopping wood for the fire but it made me wonder. I would never have considered that as indispensable laundry equipment!

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    Replies
    1. really? you don't keep one in your laundry room? ;)

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  15. What a story! I never heard fo this before.

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  16. This is such an interesting story! I didn't know about women following the troops doing this.

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  17. What an interesting story. I think everything was hard work in the "old days". This makes me even more grateful for my washing machine.

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  18. Fascinating! It all makes sense and really interesting, Tanya, but not the sort of thing I would want to do :).

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  19. Wow! Such hard work! Very interesting.

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  20. Wasn't this informative! I never even thought about laundresses before. If I had any ideas about women traveling with the troops, it was certainly a different kind of woman.

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  21. Oh my word - I hate laundry at the best of times and yet, really, I don't have to do anything but put in one machine and then another.

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