Bad Housekeeping

(Image credit: Luc Melanson)

In the past, making the bed was sort of a nightmare.

I'd like to dedicate this column to the washer-dryer in my building’s basement. You are a magnificent machine, and I’m sorry for taking you for granted. I bow before the genius of your elegant spin-rinse-drain cycle. You earn those quarters, my friend. I’d also like to give a big shout-out to your pals, the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher.

No doubt, modern housework is as pleasant as sitting through your niece’s recorder recital. But compared to housework of the past, we are living the domestic dream. For centuries, chores were unimaginably sweaty, painful, smelly, time-consuming affairs.

Let’s start with laundry. Washing a shirt in Victorian England involved at least eight painstaking steps. In his book At Home, Bill Bryson explains that you had to soak the laundry in smelly lye for several hours, pound it, scrub it, boil it, rinse it, wring it out, haul it outside, and bleach it.

It was surprisingly violent. People literally had to beat the dirt out of clothes with big wooden paddles called beetles. These looked a lot like cricket bats, and legend has it that laundresses’ kids invented cricket by chasing bubbles with them. (But that legend probably needs to be pounded out, too.) The beetles were joined by a shocking number of other bizarre-looking instruments, like wooden sock stretchers and peggy sticks -which resembled hand tillers you used in the garden.

Visiting the laundromat meant schlepping to the nearest stream or pond- even in the winter. British clergyman Reginald Heber describes women in St. Petersburg, Russia, doing the wash via a hole in a fro-zen lake, where they would “stand for hours on the ice, plunging their bare arms into the freezing water.”

Now try complaining about the spotty Wi-Fi at the cleaners. I dare you.

If the cold didn’t make you lose a finger, there was always blazing heat. For years, irons were actually made of iron- hunks of metal that weighed as much as nine pounds and had to be constantly reheated in front of a fire, not to mention cleaned, polished, and sandpapered.

In Robert Caro’s masterful biography of Lyndon Johnson, he devotes two full chapters to the workout that wash day and iron day provided. He quotes Johnson’s cousin as saying, “I will never forget how my back hurt on wash days.” (We also learn that LBJ was an expert at shirking chores.)

And lest we forget, there was no flower-scented detergent. Among the most popular stain removers? Urine. In If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley tells of a butler who asked the housemaids to save a bucket of pee to help fight fox-hunting stains. People doing the laundry also had to apply starch, which made their already pee-soaked hands raw and blistered.



Cleaning dishes was just as much of an ordeal. Bryson explains that in 19th-century Europe, people cleaned steel forks and knives with the frenzied precision of Adrian Monk: “It wasn’t enough to wash and polish them; they had to be vigorously stropped against a piece of leather on which had been smeared a paste of emery powder, chalk, brick dust, crocus, or hartshorn liberally mixed with lard. Before being put away, knives were greased with mutton fat (to defeat rusting) and wrapped in brown paper, and so had to be unwrapped, washed, and dried before they could be used again.”

As for making the bed? Until metal springs were invented, in the late 19th century, many beds were supported by a net of ropes. These ropes had to be periodically tightened1.

And let’s take a moment of silence for the Victorian maid who had to “air” her mistress’s bed. As Worsley explains, this meant stripping and hanging up the horsehair mattress, feather mattress, underblanket, undersheet, bottom sheet, top sheet, three or four blankets, eiderdown, and pillow covers. Every day.

For that matter, we should also be grateful for the humble light switch. To get reading light in the 19th century, your average citizen lit candles made of sheep and cow tallow (which was more affordable than beeswax). Not only did these stink like a McDonald’s after an arson attack, but they also required constant attention, since you frequently had to trim the wick with special scissors.

Now excuse me. I’m off to build my shrine to Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the dishwasher.

1That’s not where we got the phrase “sleep tight,” though. The word tight used to mean “soundly."

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The above article by AJ Jacobs is reprinted with permission from the June 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Don't forget to feed your brain by visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!


I have one of those beds that used ropes. I ended up drilling holes in the iron side rails and added 2x4s to support a box spring. When you stack a box and a modern mattress on a bed that wasn't designed for that, you end up with a sleeping platform that's about 40 inches above the floor! And it wasn't easy getting a 21st-century mattress to fit on a 19th-century frame, but I love the finished product.
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