Friday, August 6, 2021

Victorian Housekeeping: Washing Blankets


Kristin Holt | Victorian Housekeeping: Washing Blankets
by Kristin Holt, USA Today Bestselling Author
of Sweet Romance set in the Victorian American West

Victorian Housekeeping: Washing Blankets

Nineteenth-century women worked with an intensity most of us today can't compare with. Our great-great grandmothers lugged water (if not from a well or stream, then from the kitchen pump to her washtub or bath tub). They prepared three meals a day--including all of the seasonal work like canning, preserving, churning, butchering, harvesting, salting, and drying. Somehow, these women scrubbed their homes from top to bottom (literally) and took spring- and fall-cleaning seriously. Including cleaning the wallpaper.

This model, captured in a cabinet card photo (1870 to 1880 or so), had it easy! A washing machine! No need to stoop (until it's time to lift buckets of water).

Kristin Holt | Victorian Housekeeping: Washing Blankets. Vintage photo advertising the Empire Washer.
Photo: Studio composition of 'laundry maid' with mangle, pail, clothes basket, and Empire Washer. Unknown photographer, 1870-1880. Source: Pinterest.

Sigh. I rather like my modern washer and dryer, dishwasher, and air conditioning. Not to mention a wicked-efficient vacuum so light I carry it one-handed.

Despite our twenty-first century conveniences, readers of western historical romance find the details of Victorian-era life interesting (if not fascinating).

It's a bright sunny day (for most northern hemisphere dwellers), so let's wash the household blankets!

How to Wash Blankets, Victorian-style

Instructions for laundering blankets was published in nineteenth-century newspapers, cook books, and ladies' magazines. While advice overlaps and often contradicts, the instructions are simple.

Kristin Holt | Victorian Housekeeping: Washing Blankets. How to Clean Blankets, published in Feather River Bulletin of Quincy, California, April 1, 1876.
Note the key elements in blanket-washing instructions:

  • a tub
  • borax
  • soft soap
  • cold water
  • soak!
  • do not wring

Notice this housekeeper says her method works for woolens, flannels, mosquito bars (netting?), lace curtains and blankets. 

Cool! What other blanket-cleaning advice came from Victorian-era laundresses?

Kristin Holt | Victorian Housekeeping: Washing Blankets. Instructions for "Cleansing Blankets" and "To Wash Blankets", published in Woman Suffrage Cook Book, 2nd Edition, 1886.

Detailed Victorian Blanket-cleaning Instructions 

Published in Lawrence Daily Journal of Lawrence, Kansas on September 24, 1886, these detailed "Washing Blankets" instructions were credited to the popular Good Housekeeping magazine. 

To make reading easy on the eyes, I've carefully transcribed this Victorian newspaper clipping (including uncommon punctuation).



Some Remarks on This Important and Vexatious Domestic Problem.

I do not claim to know every thing about washing blankets, or perhaps the best method of doing it, but I have had a bit of experience in that line and would be glad to impart it to any who would like to know it. In the last twenty-five or more years I have had four and some of the time five beds in daily use. For these the only covering is blankets, winter and summer, with the exception of the white bedspread. I do not own a comfortable (no comfort in them that I can see) and but two patch-work quilts, so I make up in blankets. Using so many I have some to wash every spring and fall. In order to wash blankets successfully, four things are necessary. A good day, plenty of soft water, dissolved soap ad libitum, and two pairs of stout hands.

1. A good day--pleasant; of course. The sooner a blanket is dry after being wet, the better it looks and the less it shrinks. If the sun does not shine the hottest, provided the wind blows it is just as well for they are apt to smell oily if the sun is too hot.

2. Plenty of soft water. If soft water is not to be had a large spoonful of borax dissolved in hot water and added to each pail will help wonderfully.

3. Plenty of dissolved soap. Never use soap that has rosin in it as it hardens the texture and causes an unpleasant smell. I would not use it for any washing as it turns white clothes yellow when they are laid aside,

4. Two pairs of hands are needed, because the blankets should not be rubbed on the board, and two can handle them much easier than one. Let us not attempt to wash any more than we can do well. Here is a blanket that has been on a sick bed and there are some spots of oil on it. Take some cold water and soap and wash out the spots before putting into the hot suds. Blankets when bought are bound on the edges with ribbon of different colors. If washed with this on they will be blankets of many colors when done. I rip off the ribbon and button hole the edges with white zephyr worsted. Blankets are bought in pairs, but it is not necessary to keep them so. They are much easier handled and are not always needed on the bed together, so I have found it wise to cut them apart,

Now we are ready for the washing. I make a strong suds of the dissolved soap and hot water, having it hot enough to be comfortable to my hands and put in a couple of blankets to soak a few minutes while filling the boiler again. Squeeze the blankets in the hands pressing them up and down in the tub, then transfer them to a second tub, prepared in a like manner with not quite as much soap. Put some more blankets to soak in the first tub. If the first ones look clean when out of the second suds they can be put next into a clean water for rinsing. The first rinse will probably be quite soapy, use the second and if necessary the third rinse. Be sure no soap is left in the blankets as it will leave them hard. Have all the water as near of one temperature as you can; you can judge by the feeling to your hands. Some use a little bluing in the last water, I prefer the clean white look to the possible streaks of blue. Have the wringer loose so as not to press down the pile too hard.  When out of doors one pair of hands should take hold of one end and one pair of the other and shake and pull in shape. Hang evenly on the line. As they begin to dry pull in shape repeating at intervals until dry. Fold when dry, pulling in shape, pile together and place a weight on them. If to be put away for the summer, sew each one in cloth (old sheets come in handy) and you may bid defiance to the moth who is ever on the alert seeking what it may devour.


Giclee Painting: Allingham's Hanging the Washing, 24x18 in. $25.00 Shop on Image courtesy of Pinterest.
Allingham's Hanging the Washing. Courtesy of Pinterest.

If you wish to wash blankets for the first time they will need a little different treatment. Never mix them with those that have been washed before. The water must be just warm, plenty of soap, and the borax in two or three waters. the blankets are full of grease, as you will see when they get into the water, and it must be got out now or never. When they have been washed so they do not look streaked, it will do to put them into a hotter suds for the final one, then rinse as above stated until they are clear white.

If blankets are not used constantly, they need not be washed every season. It suffices to hang them on the line when the wind blows and the sun is not too hot. And finally get all the blankets you can. Use them in preference to any other bed clothing, especially for children. Perhaps the crossness, the "I don't want any breakfast" disposition may be in a measure owing to the heavy quilt or comfortable [sic] on the child's bed. Don't blame the child--look after the bed clothing instead.--Mrs. M. J. Plumstead, in Good Housekeeping.

Image: The Victorian Servant - Laundry Tools Laundry Tools used by the Victorians © Calderdale Libraries, Museums and Arts. Image courtesy of Pinterest.
Victorian Laundry Tools, Calderdale Libraries, Museums and Arts, image via Pinterest

Additional Methods for Cleaning Blankets

Laundresses (including moms) used ammonia, too. This first example shows soap and ammonia. Check this out:

Kristin Holt | Victorian Housekeeping: Washing Blankets. Instructions for washing woolen blankets using amonia, contained in The Every-Day Cook-Book and Encyclopedia, 1889.
This "receipt" provides lots of extra vintage hints to prevent colors from running or fading, also to brighten tints.

Victorian Washtub & Tongs, original. Courtesy of
Victorian Washtub. Source: Object Lessons

The next blanket-washing instructions emphasize the use of ammonia such that it doesn't evaporate away. Note that this example has ammonia but no soap. This article was published by The Wichita Eagle, of Wichita, Kansas on September 29, 1888. I've carefully transcribed all spelling and original punctuation.

How to Wash Blankets.

Put a pint of household ammonia in the bottom of your tub, having had the blankets well beaten to remove all clinging dust before you get the tubs out. Then lay the blanket lightly on over the ammonia, and pour upon it a sufficient quantity of warm water to cover the blanket entirely. Then with a stick or the hand flop the blanket about in the solution, pressing all the water that will come out of it against the side of the tub, without wringing as you remove it to the rinse water. You will be amazed to see the dissolved dirt coming out through the fibers, as no washing or rubbing with soap suds will bring it out. Rinse in the same way, the same moderately warm water (not boiling water), and by simply pushing the blankets about in the tub. Press through the wringer and hang out to dry in a windy place, not in the sun.

As the blanket hangs there drying a little water will collect in the four corners, which it is rather an amusement to squeeze out to help the drying process. If you do not care to put a second blanket in the first ammoniated [sic] water, which must be done promptly, as the ammonia evaporates quickly, divide the quantity, taking half a pint for each one of the two tubs, and wash two blankets at once. The evaporating ammonia, released by the warmth of the water, can only escape through the blanket,  which is laid over it in the tub before the water is applied. Hence you get the value of every drop of it. In ordinary cleaning with ammonia, for paint, brasses, silver, etc., mix it with cold water first, and then add a little warm water to the pail.


Who's ready to throw a blanket or three into your late-model washer and dryer?

Do you have ideas or thoughts to share? Please scroll down and comment.

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