Monday, September 23, 2013

The Washday Dinner Problem.

In times not so long past, Monday was the traditional washing day and Tuesday the day for ironing and mending. Every other day of the week also had a major task allotted – cleaning a particular set of rooms, shopping and re-stocking the pantry, baking etc. Further back in time, washday was not a weekly activity. The time between washdays in a particular household to some extent indicated the level of affluence – the more household linen one had, the less frequent washdays were necessary. In Samuel Pepys’ diary, written in London in the 1660’s, laundering took place every five weeks or so. It was a full day’s occupation for his wife and the maid, and Sam disliked the disruption intensely, and kept well and truly out of the way.

Washing was an incredibly labour-intensive process in the past: water had to be carted to the tubs, heated in big pans or a ‘copper’, the clothes and bed and table-linen washed (often with home-made soap) and rinsed by hand - and perhaps starched too - then wrung out or put through the mangle, hung or spread to dry, and finally the dirty water all had to be carted out and disposed of. It was not a job for the weak. As the author of The Homekeeper: Containing Numerous Recipes for Cooking and Preparing Food in a Manner Most Conducive to Health ; Directions for Preserving Health and Beauty and for Nursing the Sick ; the Making and the Care of Home ; the Care of Children and Hired Persons ; Concluding with a Few Hints Concerning the Wants of the Market (Boston, 1872) noted:

Wash-day has an unpleasant reputation, and is a dreaded day in man homes. Where the women of the house are sufficiently numerous, have strength equal to the task, and choose to wash, it may be made as agreeable as any other day; but few American women have any strength beyond the requirements of fashionable life. Those who are obliged to depend on the uncertain visits of professional washers have one vexation which Job did not; and when they do arrive at the appointed time, they require almost constant attention, as most of them wash the cleanest and finest clothing last. A luncheon must be provided; also dinner: and, towards night, the washing is done.

Washday was an ordeal for the poor man of the house too, of course. Husbands over the centuries traditionally hated washday for one major reason - the cold, hastily-scratched together washday dinners that were imposed upon them. It was not only that the women of the household were too busy to cook (although that was certainly the case) but also that the stove and fuel were commandeered to heat water for the laundry.  

Nineteenth century household manuals devoted a significant amount of space to the problem of washday labour and washday meals. The author of The Ladies’ Repository (1852) was surprisingly optimistic in her advice to the new young wife in suggesting she ask her husband for assistance. I cannot imaging too many men of the era agreeing readily to the request:

Sermon for Young Wives.
By an Old Housekeeper.
Take care of your health. Do not do every thing on wash-day yourself, if your husband is about and has a kind heart. Ask him to help you in filling the tubs, and procuring rinsing water, and in hanging out the clothes-line, and fixing on the clothes. He will do it, if you will only ask him in a kind tone.

A few more snippets from the time demonstrate the pre-occupation with the problem, and the impact on the poor neglected, ill-fed man of the house.

1882: … consisted of a man who would accept a cold dinner on washday, but if washday is properly managed, where is the need of cold dinners? 

1892: The wise man avoids home on wash-day

1895: Let us first consider wash-day. ... consideration of washday as it yet holds its place in domestic arrangements, and these are, first : that too often the men of the family spend for their wash-day dinner down town, away from the hubbub at home

Cookery books attempted to help with the dreaded decisions about washday meals, and I have touched on these in previous posts (here and here.) Today I give you another suggestion, proving that a cold meal did not have to be inevitable, if a one-pot dinner could be prepared in advance from the bits and pieces in the larder.

A Pepper Pot.
This is understood to be a sort of clear larder, or washday's family dinner-dish, composed of all sorts of shreds and patches. It ought properly, if fine cookery is sought, to be an Olio, composed of a due admixture of meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, and roots. To three quarts of water put a couple of pounds, cut, of whatever vegetables are plentiful (a good proportion being onions), and a couple of pounds of mutton-scrag cut into three or four pieces; or a fowl, or a piece of veal, or lean bacon, and a little rice. Skim it; and, when nearly finished, add the meat of a lobster or crab, cut in bits, or the soft part of a few oysters, or yolk of hard-boiled eggs. Take off all the fat that rises, and season highly with pepper and cayenne. Serve in a deep dish.

The Cook and Housewife's Manual, by Margaret Dods. [&c.]

By Christian Isobel Johnstone (1862)

And, just for fun, because it fits the theme of the day, I also give you:

Washboard Cookies.
2 ¼ cups sifted enriched flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
Dash of salt
½ cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1 egg slightly beaten
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons hot water
1 ¼ cup shredded coconut, chopped
½ teaspoon vanilla
Sift flour, baking powder and salt together. Cream shortening, add sugar gradually; then egg and beat until smooth. Mix baking soda with water; add with coconut. Add sifted dryin ingredients gradually and mix until smooth and blended. Add vanilla. Drop by teaspoonfuls on baking sheet and press down with a fork to make washboard pattern. Bake in very hot oven (400 deg) 8 minutes or until very lightly browned. 50 small cookies.

Oakland Tribune, January 13, 1942


Shay said...

A truly prudent and thrifty housekeeper used what was left of Sunday's dinner as the foundation of a Monday supper that could cook for most of the day without attention. Ham and beans with the knuckle from Sunday's ham, stew made with leftover roast beef and vegetables, etc.

In the US, if you lived in a town large enough to offer the service, sending out the "wet wash" -- towels, sheets, etc -- was an attractive option but of course you kept the nicer things to do yourself.

Or you hired a sturdy Irish or "colored" woman to come in on Mondays for a dollar and a hot meal.

Lapinbizarre said...

Coppers, as you know, were also sometimes used by working class families in "The North" to boil puddings, sweet and savory, wrapped in a floured cloth. I recall, as a child, hearing of its still being done in the early 50s.

korenni said...

My mother (now 94) and I had quite a discussion about this.

She remembers as a child that the family maid-of-all-work did the wash once a week in a small, lightless, brick-lined room off the kitchen, kindling a fire and heating the water right there. Later, when Mom's father died and her mother had hard work to bring up four little girls, they lived in boarding houses, and Mom did the wash herself whenever the bathtub was free. She absolutely hated kneeling beside it and scrubbing everybody's clothes.

In the early days of her marriage, she remembers having a wonderful washing machine (on the back porch) with an attached mangle, but before they got that, she used a washboard and tub. Women were strong and tough back then!

She remembers nothing of meals on washday, but when she was little and the maid was doing the wash, it must have been difficult for the poor woman to manage the meals as well!

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Shay, thanks for your comments - it is always interesting to get a viewpoint from another time and place!

The Old Foodie said...

Hello korenni - thanks for your personal story, it was great of you to share it with us. I do hope you are recording these family stories while your mother is able to tell them!