Washing Day

I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments about Steamies. So many interesting snapshots of women’s lives – so different, but all connected by the necessary business of laundry! I was very struck by how so many of your comments were written from a child’s perspective: an outsider, while the bustling work of women went on around you. This reminded me of Anna Laetita Barbauld’s poem Washing Day, which I thought I’d reproduce here for those of you who don’t know it.

For many years, I did not get on with this poem. I felt that it was in some way responsible for the pigeonholing of eighteenth-century women as domestic writers. I disliked its ‘prattling’ muse, and I disliked the fact that it was about, of all things washing – how very inconsequential! Barbauld is a tremendous writer, and I felt strongly that she needed to be known more for her political works. After all, any woman who could write a pamphlet with the title Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation deserved to be taken seriously. But, after a decade or so immersed in the Eighteenth Century, my thoughts about this poem totally changed – not coincidentally, around the same time that I started knitting again. I realised that Washing Day was a brilliant poem, with all of Barbauld’s brilliance, on a subject that was no less worthy of attention than the many other topics she tackled in her writing. The poem itself was not to blame for the pigeonholing of eighteenth-century women writers — rather, that was the fault of several generations of male academics and editors. The beginning of the poem is mock-epic in tone, but I don’t think that this trivialises its subject matter in the least. I love its material, textile details: the wet sheets on the line; the grandmother in the process of knitting a stocking. It is an important poem for being written from a child’s perspective, as well as for its descriptions of women’s work and household routines. And I really think that, in the last few lines, the transformation of the child’s soap bubble into the Montgolfier hot-air balloon – before the poem itself goes POP and disappears – is one of the most gobsmacking, imaginatively defining, moments of eighteenth-century poetry. I hope you enjoy it.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Washing Day (1797)

The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost
The buskin’d step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come, then, domestic Muse,
In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or drowning flies, or shoe lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face;
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded Washing-Day.
–Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,
With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day
Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on
Too soon; for to that day nor peace belongs
Nor comfort; ere the first grey streak of dawn,
The red-arm’d washers come and chase repose.
Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth,
E’er visited that day: the very cat,
From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth,
Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest.
The silent breakfast-meal is soon dispatch’d
Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks
Cast at the lowering sky, if sky should lower.
From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!
For should the skies pour down, adieu to all
Remains of quiet; then expect to hear
Of sad disasters–dirt and gravel stains
Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once
Snapped short–and linen-horse by dog thrown down,
And all the petty miseries of life.
Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,
And Guatimozin smil’d on burning coals;
But never yet did housewife notable
Greet with a smile a rainy washing-day.
–But grant the welkin fair, require not thou
Who call’st thyself perchance the master there,
Or study swept, or nicely dusted coat,
Or usual ‘tendance; ask not, indiscreet,
Thy stockings mended, tho’ the yawning rents
Gape wide as Erebus, nor hope to find
Some snug recess impervious: should’st thou try
The ‘customed garden walks, thine eye shall rue
The budding fragrance of thy tender shrubs,
Myrtle or rose, all crushed beneath the weight
Of coarse check’d apron, with impatient hand
Twitch’d off when showers impend: or crossing lines
Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet
Flaps in thy face abrupt. Woe to the friend
Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
On such a day the hospitable rites;
Looks, blank at best, and stinted courtesy,
Shall he receive. Vainly he feeds his hopes
With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,
Or tart or pudding:–pudding he nor tart
That day shall eat; nor, tho’ the husband try,
Mending what can’t be help’d, to kindle mirth
From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow
Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest
In silence dines, and early slinks away.
I well remember, when a child, the awe
This day struck into me; for then the maids,
I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;
Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope
Usual indulgencies; jelly or creams,
Relique of costly suppers, and set by
For me their petted one; or butter’d toast,
When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale
Of ghost, or witch, or murder–so I went
And shelter’d me beside the parlour fire:
There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,
Tended the little ones, and watched from harm,
Anxiously fond, tho’ oft her spectacles
With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins
Drawn from her ravell’d stocking, might have sour’d
One less indulgent.–
At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,
Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,
All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,
To fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.
Then would I sit me down, and ponder much
Why washings were. Sometimes thro’ hollow bowl
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles, little dreaming then
To see, Mongolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds–so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air, and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them–this most of all.


(Antonio Carnicero Y Mancio, Ascent of the Montgolfier Balloon in the Gardens of Aranjuez, 1784)

38 responses

  1. Love this! It’s hilarious! The tyranny of the domestic life … I especially like:

    Woe to the friend
    Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
    On such a day the hospitable rites;
    Looks, blank at best, and stinted courtesy,
    Shall he receive.

    I think of my poor family when I’ve got the Domestic Tyrant on my back and cannot see their needs above my own to see my floors vacuumed!

  2. Dear Kate,

    Thank goodness for your blog and postings, you are getting me through some difficult times and I always find comfort, inspiration and strength from all you write and the knowledge that there are so many wonderful people out there following your blog too. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for this brilliant poem, which has made me think and laugh – and all before my morning coffee, which is an achievement in itself. I particularly like these lines:

    “… or crossing lines
    Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet
    Flaps in thy face abrupt.”

    Not the most thought-provoking, but so funny and true if you’ve ever tried to wrestle washing on to a line on a windy day.

  4. It reminds of of Pope’s mock-epic takes on something tiny in the Rape of the Lock. Love ‘the petty miseries of life’ – what better phrase for when the dye runs on your new pair of handknitted socks…

  5. This takes me back to my childhood when mum was ill and I had to ‘ca’ the handle’ of the wringer as part of the toil of washing day. washing machines didn’t come to our house till later so it was still the boiler – albeit electric – and wet sheets hauled hither and thither. And always watching the weather which always changed once everything was on the line. How I resented it all not realising that she was unwell. Why did other children get to play (including my brothers) whilst I had to work? Only now – too late – I understand the truth of it all.

    Fabulous bubble picture – did you take that?

  6. Brilliant poem! I too quite like the bit about the unwanted guest. I had never heard of this author; I think this was the perfect introduction to her work. ;) Thank you!

  7. I like that :) Strangely I never minded laundry – even when I had to do it by hand, but doing the dishes – nope. That’s what I got a dishwasher for as soon as I was able :)

    viv in nz

  8. What a wonderful poem! Thanks for posting.

    I can remember my mother and my aunts washing baby things in a galvanized tub with a scrubbing board out in the yard when we were on vacation at my grandmother’s house. Of course, it was the children who were on vacation:)

    • My mother-in-law told me she and her mother-in-law used to wash diapers by hand, kneeling at the bathtub, while on vacation in a lakeside cabin in the 40’s. Your comment that it was the children’s vacation is dead on!

  9. I have been thinking on laundry lately too, the fact it just keeps happening. This poem is funny and also make me very glad for a washing machine and dryer for those rainy days.

    The comparison with “saints” just makes me laugh…
    Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,
    And Guatimozin smil’d on burning coals;
    But never yet did housewife notable
    Greet with a smile a rainy washing-day.

    It must be something in us, because I still don’t like doing laundry on rainy days and I don’t have to hang things out to dry.

  10. this and the previous post reminded me of when my now husband and I were meeting on the sly at the laundromat and how it came to be that every stitch of his underwear turned bright pink when my new red chenille bathrobe got into his washer and the day, four years after we married, he brought home a new washing machine and I got down on my knees in the driveway and wept in gratitude!

  11. I blundered onto your site a year or two ago following some knitting trail and have been reading ever since. I know you get comments to the tune of “can’t you just stick with the knitting?” But I must say I totally enjoy your forays off onto other topics. All I can say is Thank God for washing machines. That was an interesting look at what life was for women in the past, think of the women that earned a living being a washerwoman.

  12. What a great poem! Incidentally, it has made me remember another late 18th century washing day-poem, “Bittschrift” [“Petition”] written c. 1785-1787 by that famous German dramatist and poet Friedrich von Schiller. In this surprisingly funny piece, Schiller describes how he is sitting at his desk, working on his drama “Don Karlos”, trying hard to fully immerse his mind in that tale of tragic love and political intrigues – but is ruthlessly disrupted by the noises of the washing day that is going on around him in his lodgings.

    The (German) text of the poem may be found here – unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find an English translation of the entire piece, only of the last two stanzas:

    I feel my love-lorn lady’s hurt,
    My fancy waxes hotter;
    I hear, — the sound of sock and shirt
    A-swishing in the water.

    Vanished the dream — the faery chimes —
    My Princess, pax vobiscum!
    The devil take these wash-day rimes,
    I will no longer risk ‘em.

    I’m afraid the translation doesn’t really do Schiller’s verses justice, but it does give an idea of the way he contrasts the flight of his poetic imagination with the realities of his everyday life…

  13. Automation is wonderful! The washboard and boiling tub of water, soap, elbow grease, and everything else to clean one’s clothes is long gone for most of us in the first world. But I have friends from other parts of the world who tell me, if I need to know, they can show me the best rock to use for washing clothes, and the best place in the river. My mother told me of her job in her childhood to help her mother with the laundry for a family of nine, in a big city in the US – pulling up the tub, lighting the fire behind the tenement, and getting to work, no matter the weather. Then, the hanging of clothes 5 floors up, and whacking them to break the frozen stiffness once line-dried in the dead of winter. I have a washtub, and washboard, but I vastly prefer the automated process – I’ll save the tub and washboard for felting!

  14. My mom comes from a lineage of large (as in many children) midwest farm families. One of her aunts had 15 children. Alas, her husband wasn’t ever much help with them or the housework. When the kids were all grown up, they wanted to buy her a washing machine because she’d never had one, and her husband said “Why would you get her a washing machine? She’s always done fine without.” Isn’t that maddening. This aunt is no longer living, but I bet she would have especially appreciated this poem.

  15. Thank you for this poem – it brought me back immediately to a really long time ago, when washing day at my grandmother’s house was pretty much like this: bad-tempered cook included, children sent away to play somewhere else, big pots of boiling water carried carefully to the attic where everything happened. I think this is a poem about childhood, and childhood always includes a house, the House, the one we remember and whose memory we cherish best. I love your blog, and of course your knitting. Most of the time I only lurk, but today your post prompted me to answer.

  16. I’ve never minded washing either, but it probably has a great deal to do with the [usually] sunny weather here in southeast Australia. The lovely aroma of bedlinen dried in the sunshine makes me happy and beats any of that chemical stuff. However, I do appreciate how much more difficult it would have been for my grandmother with the heavier-weight cotton/linen sheets and all those kids!

  17. I have never had to wash my laundry by hand, thank goodness! However, I do hang my laundry out on the line to dry for a good portion of the year. In the warmer months it will dry almost as fast as in the dryer. Once it is dry, it waits patiently, without wrinkling, for me to take it down and fold it. The fragrance of clean sheets dried out in the sun is one of the best!

  18. Oh, my mother (in her early 70’s) tells me about growing up in Arkansas (a southern farming state in the US). They had a set day for washing, of course, and finally they got a wringer, which my mother was NOT allowed to go near, as they are so dangerous. They did the ironing by heating the irons on the woodstove, and everything had to be starched. They were not a well-off family; for most of my mother’s growing-up, they didn’t own their own farming land, even. How grateful I am for our washer and dryer in the basement, even though we do hang our laundry on the line whenever weather permits. I would not like to wash all these diapers without the automatic machine!

  19. I’d never heard of her, but she is brilliant. What a vocabulary! She reminds me of Alexander Pope. However, she also reminds me of my childhood when Monday was wash day; Tuesday was for ironing!

    Cheers and red wine, Hazel.

  20. What a wonderful poem! Thanks for sharing it. I love domestic history, and laundry lore in particular, and this is certainly that, but judged as poetry it is marvelous. The humor with a tang of bitterness underneath is pitch perfect, and the ending surprises without jarring. Just great!

  21. OMG when Anna Laetitia Barbauld, can write about a Washing day in this way, imagine the power of her words and her impressions of governments and nations. Politicians would be shivering in their boots. I was remembering when I read this, I had a dress my grandmother bought me. It had a white background, and was simply styled with small capped sleeve, and belted at the waist. The pattern all- over was of colourful washing diagonally pegged on thin black clothesline. I loved the dress, it had yellow piping on it at slight boat neck and sleeves You do post the most intetesting things Kate.

  22. I have very clear memories of laundry day (always Monday) in my childhood in England (born 1941), of the steaming “copper” in the wash house in the back yard (used as per Mrs Fezziwig in “Christmas Carol” to cook the Christmas pudding in its linen-wrapped bowl). The room off the kitchen where chores like ironing (always Tuesdays)and shoe polishing and vegetable preparation took place, had long wooden clothes racks that could be hauled up and down by ropes. I remember helping my mother pull the sheets to stretch them straight. We didn’t have an electric washing machine until the early 1960s. In college at Oxford (1961-64), we sent our bed linen to the laundry, and washed the rest ourselves in the wash basin – or occasionally in the college-supplied washer and dryer. One domestic sized one for about 250 young women in residence! Babies’ diapers in England then were still terry cloth with a cotton liner. Smaller cotton US diapers were a welcome surprise when I had a baby in Chicago in 1970. And, yes, I did have a washing machine in my apartment.

    • Amanda
      Thanks for getting “Beeswing” up there!
      I’m not very computer savvy and I don’t think my link worked.
      I wanted Kate to hear it…
      thanks again
      donna

  23. Loved this entry Kate. Fascinating.

    I live in New Zealand where in earlier times, a mostly rural and self-sufficient home meant lighting the fire under the copper, and heating the hot water for washing. The cutting of the wood was usually a ‘man’s job’, the washing the ‘woman’s job’, and an early use of washing machines, usually an agitator with a ringer above the washing bowl. Although the grandmother of a family friend, needing money, would walk up to 20 miles from her home to be a ‘washerwoman’. Also a lovely watercolour by Frances Hodgkins of ‘A Washerwoman’

    New Zealand with its early use of electric washing machines, although my mother thought badly of a family that bought a car, before they bought an electric washing machine.

    Now I consider a fully-automatic, capable of taking 9 kg of washing per load, a dream come true, and we only have three children. Though I think washing is done a lot more now, as well as people having more clothes than in yesteryear.

    I loved Agatha Christie’s autobiography, more for the period piece that she describes than anything else. There was a lot more walking for individuals, and before the days of television, it was common for her family to see a play a week! You may enjoy her autobiography too.

  24. Dear Kate
    For those who might be able to get to Glasgow, there is another link. A friend’s husband has a photography exhibition in the Cafe of the Renfield St Stephen Church on Bath Street, looking at Steamies in Glasgow in 1986, it is on until the end of March.
    Thanks for your posts, always so thoughtful and thought provoking.
    Mary

  25. also, I am struck how many children’s books are about laundry: Eve Garnett’s ‘The Family from One End Street'; Don Freeman’s ‘A Pocket for Corduroy'; Alan Ahlberg’s ‘Mrs Lather’s Laundry’, to name just a few… as a child I loved all of these!

  26. I’ve always appreciated that washing must have been very hard work, but it never occurred to me that it must also have been accompanied by anxiety. (although, as I think about it, I remember my mother shooing me away from the wringer, exclaiming “It will pull your hair out!”) What a wonderful poem! thank you once again, Kate, for taking the trouble to bring these things to us.

  27. One of the things that strikes me about this poem is that the Washing Day was anything BUT inconsequential. Washing an entire household’s worth of clothing and linen by hand had to have been backbreaking work. (I find it onerous enough to handwash my sweaters, in this age of automatic machines.) And, I strongly suspect that in Barbauld’s day, this laboriousness was not acknowledged. How beautifully clever of her to write an epic poem about something that was an epic chore but also one unacknowledged by society. Yes, perhaps her description is a bit overblown, but perhaps also it would cause people who otherwise wouldn’t consider the amount of care and labor involved in washing day to think about it more carefully. That seems like a political statement to me!

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