Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Martha Washington's Laundry Wash House at Mount Vernon in 18C Virginia

Compiled by Sydney Marenburg 

In the Mount Vernon home of Martha & George Washington. the Laundry or Wash House, enslaved laundresses performed weekly washings for the Washington family, long-term guests, hired white servants, & overseers.

Laundry in the 18C was usually a 3-day, labor-intensive process reserved for household linens, like sheets & tablecloths, & clothing worn closest to the skin: shirts, shifts, & stockings. Many people contributed garments to each laundry load, so clothes & linens often were marked with the owner’s initials or name in ink or cross-stitch. 

At Mount Vernon, as at many other elite 18C houses, the employment contracts of unmarried, white male servants often included the provision of laundry services. (See: Agreement with Burgis Mitchell, 1 May 1762,” 

A married man’s laundry fell to his wife. (See: "George Washington to James Anderson (of Scotland), 7 April 1797,”

George & Martha Washington’s famous hospitality included providing laundry services for Mount Vernon guests staying longer than 1 week (the typical turn-around time of the Wash House.) A constant stream of guests surely created a heavy workload for the enslaved laundresses.

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a visiting Polish Nobleman who stayed at the plantation for 2 weeks, noted that the enslaved workers “took care of me, of my linen, of my clothes,” treating him “not as a stranger but as a member of the family.” (See: Ursyn Niemcewicz, Julian, Early Description by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. June 5, 1978.)

The 1799 probate inventory taken after George Washington’s death recorded the contents of the Wash House. The building contained 9  tubs, 4 pails, 2  small buckets with handles (called piggins), 4 tables, & 2 copper tubs (called boilers) valued at $34.75. (See: P.C Nash, Fairfax County Will Book J, 1801-1806, Fairfax, Virginia: Fairfax County Court Archives, 1810, George Washington.) 

In addition, 8 jars of soap, valued at $25, were stored in the Mansion cellar. When Washington inherited the property in 1761, the Wash House inventory records 9 hand irons.

Although there were no automated laundry appliances, Mount Vernon’s Wash House was equipped with a built-in brick stove that held a copper kettle over a fire. This was a feature of many elite homes in the 18C & was a relative luxury, as laundresses did not have to move the heavy pots of hot water.

Generally, laundry in the 18C was conducted exclusively by women. (See: Mohun, Arwen Palmer. “Laundrymen Construct Their World: Gender and the Transformation of a Domestic Task to an Industrial Process”The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Jan., 1997): 97-120

Woman with Bag of Laundry The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University 

Records from 1759 to 1799 indicate the names of 9 enslaved women & when they were assigned to the Wash House.

Jemima, 1759

Jenny, 1759

Mima, 1787 –1788

Sall, 1786 –1791

Sinah, 1794

Lucy, 1794

Caroline, 1793 –1798

Dolshy, 1786 –1799

Vina, 1798 –1799

Home-care manuals of the 19C instructed that laundry should begin Monday & conclude on Wednesday, leaving Thursday to Saturday free for other work. (See: Leslie, Eliza. Miss Leslie's Lady's House-book: A Manual of Domestic Economy, Containing Approved Directions for Washing, Dress-making, Millinery, Dyeing, Cleaning, etc 1850.  Note: although this source is from a much later period, it is conjectured that the laundry process remained very similar between eras until the widespread use of laundry machines.)

Many of the enslaved women assigned to Mount Vernon’s Wash House were not only doing laundry, but also acted as seamstresses, spinners, & knitters.

Laundresses also needed a wide knowledge of treatments for all sorts of stains on many different fine fabrics. Finer garments made out of wool, silk, & cotton were rarely, if ever, fully washed, but instead spot-treated for stains. 

Laundry was an intense job requiring an incredible amount of physical strength. During the hot Virginia summers, the washhouse would be an almost unbearable temperature due to the constant fires & clouds of billowing steam. Laundresses had to move pounds of clothing, made even heavier with water, from pot to pot & agitate the laundry—all by hand.

The enslaved laundresses began each load by hauling the necessary water & firewood: thirty to fifty gallons of water from the kitchen well to fill copper kettles, & roughly 180 pounds of firewood to feed the boiler that heated water for the first phase of washing. Depending on the volume of laundry, a total of over 100 gallons of water could be necessary. This could entail more than 2 dozen trips back & forth to the well for each day of washing.

Copper kettles, not iron, were used for washing. The water, soap, bleaching agents, & heat would cause iron to leach into the water, potentially ruining delicate linen fabric.

Soap was rubbed over stains & soil, but not added to the water. Items of the highest quality were washed 1st; when the water was cleanest.

Washerwomen agitated the clothes by hand, stirring them in the water or scrubbing them with laundry bats, flat wooden paddles with ridges.

Usually, once cleaned, the clothes would be rinsed in separate water. To keep the fine white fabrics of shirts, shifts, & tablecloths white, sometimes a bluing powder would be added to the water. A bluing powder, made of indigo, would counteract the yellowing of the fabric & make it look whiter. (See: Dunbar, James. Smegmatalogia, or the art of making potashes and soap, and bleaching of linen. By which the industrious farmer is taught to bleach and wash his cloath with the produce of our own country. United Kingdom: the author, 1736.)

To dry, items could be hung over drying racks indoors or spread out on the grass outdoors on warm, dry days.

Once dry, the process of ironing would begin. Ironing required experience & skill: the laundress managed the temperature of at least 3 irons. When one grew too cool, another would be ready for use, hot but not hot enough to burn the fabric.

Finally, the laundry would be folded with the assistance of the housemaids & distributed to the closets of the house & outbuildings.

Much of this research & more are available from George Washington's (1732-1799) home Mount Vernon's website, You can donate to their excellent efforts directly from their website. Please do.