Thursday, September 25, 2008

Some history behind whitening laundry



Thanks to Lorilee from Cackleberry Cottage who left me a comment on my last post asking if I've come across the fact that Victorians laid their laundry on the grass to bleach? Well Lorilee, you really sparked an interest there, and I've discovered a whole world of the history of bleaching linens. I'm not at all a history boffin, but I found some rather interesting facts and thought you might like to learn about it too. So take a quick journey through time with me, and then thank your lucky stars we have the Internet for tips and washing machines at our disposal.
Oh, and for those of you who are wondering about my 'cleaning the stairs' post, I am working on it and will be posting it sometime this weekend.

The history of bleaching

So it turns out that human have been whitening fabrics for centuries and as early as 300 BC soda ash was made from seaweed to whiten cloth.

In the 1800's sunlight was used to bleach whites, and this was in fact done, as Lorilee suggested, by spreading the fabrics on a grass area. They even set aside some land specifically for this purpose - sometimes this would be communal land, or on the private lands of large properties. But before the household linens were spread out on the grass they would be soaked in lye at intervals, rinsed and dried. This was a lengthy process called crofting, and was tedious especially for fabric mills where large areas of land that could have been used for farming had to be used. Of course, you didn't necessarily have to use grass, hedges could also be used, and for great smelling laundry lavender fields worked a treat as well as acting as a deterrent for bed bugs.


Lye soap itself is an interesting concoction! Lye soap was made from animal fat mixed with water that had run through the ashes from a fire. Some people even burned specific kinds of plants to get the best possible lye. But lye also refers to a different type of detergent made for washing. Chamber Lye for instance was made from urine collected from chamber pots and the lengthy process of soaking and washing laundry with chamber lye was called 'bucking'. Eugh! Can you imagine?



In Victorian times, there was also the tradition of washdays being on Mondays so that all items could be washed, dried and pressed by Sundays. But in big households washing would only be done on a monthly basis because households would pride themselves on having enough linens to last that long. But when washdays commenced for these households, it was a big household disruption taking up to four days even in good drying conditions.

By the mid nineteenth century bluing laundry became popular. This would entail a blue bag being stirred into the final rinse on washdays - this method disguised any hint of yellow in fabric making whites appear whiter. By the 20th century Reckit's blue bags were being sold around the world. These blue bags contained synthetic ultramarine blue and baking soda.



At this time however scientists had already discovered a chemical that had the same desired effect as crofting but yielded quicker results. - it was the chemical element chlorine. But with dangerous gases and fumes being given off in the process attempts to use it was soon abandoned. By the Industrial era bleaching powder was invented by the Scottish scientist Charles Tennant. This discovery resulted in the mass production of sodium hyperchlorite, or what we now know as bleach. Although nowadays, we also know how bleach can damage fabrics, and we are lucky enough to have new discoveries such as Oxygen bleach as well as the good old household tip being passed around of the joys of using lemons and sunlight. How lucky we are!

If you would like to read more about the history of washdays and bleaching, do take a look at these great websites where I found some information and the images I've used; especially the Old and Interesting website - what a gem!




I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. Thanks Lorilee for inspiring me to do this post!
Hope to see you all soon!

6 comments:

Country Bliss said...

That was really interesting I'm glad I don't have to wash my clothes in urine, gross!
I didn't know about the lemon juice and bicarb, in your last post either so I'll try these in future.
Yvonne

Lorilee said...

Wow, what interesting information. I love the old photos too! Thank you so much for the research! Keep up the great work!
Blessings,
Lorilee

thriftymrs said...

Very interesting post.

Lesley (Notesfrommydays) said...

very good timing - am just home from hols and have all school uniforms to do that already have white socks and shirts looking a bit grey!!
Lesley x

Debbies-English-Treasures said...

I ENJOYED THIS INFO VERY MUCH...
IT WAS SO INTERESTING TO READ... I DIDN`T KNOW,THAT THEY TOOK SO MUCH PRIDE IN THEIR WHITES...I THINK THAT THEY PUT AS TO SHAME. LOL
KISSES
DEBBIE MOSS

BY THE WAY, I HAVE SOMETHING IN MY BLOG, FOR YOU!
HOPE YOU ARE HAVING A LOVELY WEEKEND!

Judy said...

That was really interesting. I had no idea!!! You are really educating all of us and doing a great job.

A note on perfection

Many of the posts featured on this blog are about doing household chores the correct, or so to say perfect way. My intention is not to make readers feel that the way they are running their households are wrong. So if making the bed, or ironing shirts in a certain way doesn't fit your lifestyle, do not feel guilty about it. But by learning the correct way of doing things it might just come in handy for those times when special guests are staying, or when you need to iron that shirt perfectly for a job interview. So enjoy the learning, but skip the guilt and LOVE your homes. x

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