Like one of my counterparts from the 19th century, I save all my laundry to wash on one day (Saturday in my case, most likely Monday in hers). I've seen articles before talking about what a chore it was to do laundry back then, but today I had an extra insight into what it really must have been like. Lately, to save on electricity, I've been hanging jeans and towels on the clothesline to dry. However, since the days have grown shorter, I have to get them on the line early or they won't have time to dry before the sun sets. This morning, I went out with a load shortly after breakfast -- and it was COLD! The temperature was probably in the 30s, which is not so bad, but there was a bit of a breeze that made it seem significantly colder. As I hurried to pin the eight pairs of jeans to the line, I thought about the women who didn't have the choice to throw their laundry in a dryer.
Now, it's possible people weren't quite so picky about hygiene on the frontier in the nineteenth century, so maybe if the weather was cold, a woman would just skip washing for that week. However, I think it's unlikely that she would be able to avoid the chore for the entire winter. So imagine what a dreadful job it would be. First, there would be all the water to haul -- from a well if you were lucky enough to have one, from the creek if you were not. There would, at least, be a fire to heat the water, although if you've been around a campfire you know your face can be burning hot while your backside is cold. Would a woman work up a sweat, even in cold weather, stirring the clothes in the tub? Her hands would be in and out of the water as she scrubbed dirty spots and as she wrung the water from the clothes. If she had dry skin like I do, before long her knuckles would no doubt be cracked from the constant change of temperature. That doesn't even take into account that she would be using lye soap rather than detergent, which if it wasn't made just right could be caustic. Once the clothes were scrubbed and wrung out, everything had to be hung out to dry, or spread over a fence or whatever was at hand if the family didn't have a clothesline. Although a little breeze would help things dry faster, it would feel quite cold to arms and hands still slightly damp from the washtub.
I'm sure washing was a job that had to be done outside, and I also imagine a woman washed only what had to be done during the winter months -- no bed linens. I'm very thankful for the machines that make it possible for me to have clean, fresh-smelling clothes and sheets year-round, with a minimum of effort on my part.