Our exhibit on laundry closes this coming Sunday, January 12; visit now, before all our lovely starched collars, blued petticoats, and terrifyingly complex laundry tools go back into storage! In the meantime, here’s a look at a few, final laundry-related items that didn’t make it into the exhibit.
This fringed linen hand towel is embroidered, in a charmingly free-hand style, with the word “LAUNDRY.” It has the look of a once-good towel (it even has a stamped, numerical laundry mark, indicating it was sent out to be cleaned) which has now been down-graded to use in the laundry room; lest someone confuse it with a guest-worthy towel, it’s been conveniently marked with its function and place. (And yes, I realize it’s somewhat ironic that it really needs to be ironed.) Early 20th century; donated by the Poole sisters.
Many of the helpful laundry-related tips to be found in magazines and household manuals relate to the problem of small articles going missing. A subscriber submitted this piece of advice to Good Housekeeping’s Book of Menus, Recipes, and Household Discoveries (1922): “Avoid loss of handkerchiefs (and of temper as well)” by basting them together before sending them out to the laundry. (The contributor adds, “Of course, they are returned unironed, but who would not be willing to press them out rather than not to have them returned to you at all, particularly in these days of high-priced linens!”) Stockings are also prone to loss, which – as anyone with a pile of lonely, mismatched socks knows – is particularly vexing. The Ladies’ Home Journal “What Other Women Have Found Out” column for May 1907 included this reader-submitted tip:
“Sewing pairs of stockings together before washing them will help the busy mother. It does not interfere with the washing, and when they have been ironed it is a great help to find them all sorted and mated. A snip of the scissors releases them.”
Our collections include many batches of basted-together collars, handkerchiefs, and stockings – that final “snip of the scissors” not yet achieved – including this pair of fancy cotton stockings, which are still sewn together at the top. Early 20th century, donated by Elisabeth Mast Buck.
And finally, one of my favorite discoveries while researching this exhibit: a wonderfully modern-sounding article from the January 1926 issue of Women’s Home Companion. In “Charting the Seas of Matrimony,” Frances Duncan Manning (1877-1972), author of several books on gardening and frequent contributor to women’s magazines in the 1910s and 1920s, argued that “Where [husband and wife] are both at work a scrupulous fairness in the division of labors is vital.” Manning uses the household chores of cooking and laundry to illustrate her point, which is why the article caught my laundry-attuned eye. If an unmarried professional young woman has been taking care of her own wardrobe, she may see no reason why her new husband can’t do the same for his own – and if he blithely assumes she’ll provide his beloved “well-laundered shirts, mended socks, [and] exquisitely pressed trousers” as if by magic, the matrimonial seas will be choppy indeed. Manning sums up her argument in a way that makes a fair division of labor seem like a positive thing (hooray, independence!) for everyone: “The corollary to economic independence of women is domestic independence for men.” In other words, everyone should know how to do their own laundry.