In the Wash House, enslaved laundresses performed weekly washings for the Washington family, long-term guests, hired white servants, and overseers.
Laundry in the 18th century was a three-day, labor-intensive process reserved for household linens, like sheets and tablecloths, and clothing worn closest to the skin: shirts, shifts, and stockings. Many people contributed garments to each laundry load, so clothes and linens were marked with the owner’s initials or name in ink or cross-stitch. At Mount Vernon, as at many other elite 18th-century houses, the employment contracts of unmarried, white male servants included the provision of laundry services.1 A married man’s laundry fell to his wife.2
George and Martha Washington’s famous hospitality included providing laundry services for Mount Vernon guests staying longer than one week (the typical turn-around time of the Wash House.) The constant stream of guests created a heavy workload for the enslaved laundresses.
Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a visiting Polish Nobleman who stayed at the plantation for two weeks, noted that the enslaved workers “took care of me, of my linen, of my clothes,” treating him “not as a stranger but as a member of the family.”3
Wash House Inventory, 1799
The probate inventory taken after George Washington’s death recorded the contents of the Wash House. The building contained nine tubs, four pails, two small buckets with handles (called piggins), four tables, and two copper tubs (called boilers) valued at thirty-four dollars and seventy-five cents.4 In addition, eight jars of soap, valued at twenty-five dollars, were stored in the Mansion cellar. When Washington inherited the property in 1761, the Wash House inventory records nine hand irons.
Above Pair of silk stockings, 18th century. Object number W-2471/A-B.
Although there were no automated laundry appliances, Mount Vernon’s Wash House was equipped with a built-in brick stove that held a copper kettle over a fire. This was a feature of many elite homes in the 18th century and was a relative luxury, as laundresses did not have to move the heavy pots of hot water.
Laundry in the 18th century was conducted exclusively by women.5 Records from 1759 to 1799 indicate the names of nine enslaved women and when they were assigned to the Wash House.
Home-care manuals of the day instructed that laundry should begin Monday and conclude on Wednesday, leaving Thursday to Saturday free for other work.6 Many of the enslaved women assigned to Mount Vernon’s Wash House were not only doing laundry, but also acted as seamstresses, spinners, and knitters.
Laundresses also needed a wide knowledge of treatments for all sorts of stains on many different fine fabrics. Finer garments made out of wool, silk, and cotton were rarely, if ever, fully washed, but instead spot-treated for stains.
Laundry was an intense job requiring an incredible amount of physical strength. During the hot Virginia summers, the washhouse would be an almost unbearable temperature due to the constant fires and clouds of billowing steam. Laundresses had to move pounds of clothing, made even heavier with water, from pot to pot and agitate the laundry—all by hand.
The Wash Cycle
The enslaved laundresses began each load by hauling the necessary water and firewood: thirty to fifty gallons of water from the kitchen well to fill copper kettles, and roughly 180 pounds of firewood to feed the boiler that heated water for the first phase of washing. Depending on the volume of laundry, a total of over one hundred gallons of water could be necessary. This meant more than two dozen trips back and forth to the well for each day of washing.
Copper kettles, not iron, were used for washing. The water, soap, bleaching agents, and heat would cause iron to leach into the water, potentially ruining delicate linen fabric.
Soap was rubbed over stains and soil, but not added to the water. Items of the highest quality were washed first; when the water was cleanest.
Washerwomen agitated the clothes by hand, stirring them in the water or scrubbing them with laundry bats, flat wooden paddles with ridges.
Once cleaned, the clothes would be rinsed in separate water. To keep the fine white fabrics of shirts, shifts, and tablecloths white, sometimes a bluing powder would be added to the water. The bluing powder, made of indigo, would counteract the yellowing of the fabric and make it look whiter.7
To dry, items could be hung over drying racks indoors or spread out on the grass outdoors on warm, dry days.
Once dry, the process of ironing would begin. Ironing required experience and skill: the laundress managed the temperature of at least three irons. When one grew too cool, another would be ready for use, hot but not hot enough to burn the fabric.
Finally, the laundry would be folded with the assistance of the housemaids and distributed to the closets of the house and outbuildings.
3 —Ursyn Niemcewicz, Julian, Early Description by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. June 5, 1978.
4 —P.C Nash, Fairfax County Will Book J, 1801-1806, (Fairfax, Virginia): Fairfax County Court Archives, 1810), George Washington.
5 —Mohun, Arwen Palmer. “Laundrymen Construct Their World: Gender and the Transformation of a Domestic Task to an Industrial Process”The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Jan., 1997): 97-120
6 —Leslie, Eliza. Miss Leslie's Lady's House-book: A Manual of Domestic Economy, Containing Approved Directions for Washing, Dress-making, Millinery, Dyeing, Cleaning, etc 1850. Note: although this source is from a later period, the laundry process remained very similar between eras until the widespread use of laundry machines.
7 —Dunbar, James. Smegmatalogia, or the art of making potashes and soap, and bleaching of linen. By which the industrious farmer is taught to bleach and wash his cloath with the produce of our own country. United Kingdom: the author, 1736.