A frontier post must’ve been a busy place with soldiers coming and going, marching, saluting, and fighting. But in addition to the men who lived on the post, there were officers’ wives and children. Lots of dirty, grimy clothes. A little-known fact is that up until 1878 the army hired laundresses, or washerwomen as some called them. Each soldier paid for his own laundry.
These ladies traveled with the soldiers in an official capacity and had free access to the army doctors and surgeons. In fact, they were the only females the army recognized and supported.
To get hired, a laundress first had to pass several hurdles. They had to have a certificate of good character from headquarters before they could assume duty and they had to be free of disease.
Once they passed, these women were issued a tent, bedding straw, a hatchet, a large wash tub and two mess pans. Each day they received a ration of meat, bread and whiskey. The whiskey might sound odd but it was issued to remove stains. *wink, wink* I’m betting more than a few hard-working women drank it after a hard day of scrubbing clothes over a fire. It was hot, backbreaking work.
Each company was issued three or four laundresses. That averaged one for every 15-17 men. That’s a lot of dirty clothes for one person to wash.
The women lodged together on what was called Soap Suds Row on the fringe of the post. Their tents were often tattered and in disrepair. If a laundress married a soldier, which happened pretty frequently, he lived with her there.
A laundress’s work was extremely hard. She rose before dawn and chopped wood and hauled water. She often heated as much as 50 gallons of water a day in several tubs for soaking, scrubbing, and rinsing. Boiling was the final process (to kill lice, ticks, and fleas) before being hung up to dry.
Lye soap was the only kind available and that, plus the hot water, made their hands crack and bleed. She used a rub board to scrub the clothes on and that, too, was unkind to hands.
If a soldier wanted his clothes ironed that cost extra. Laundresses also did mending, sewed on buttons, and applied bluing to the final rinse to offset the yellowish tinge that light-colored clothing acquired from repeated washings.
But, laundresses were paid well. An average soldier paid $1 to $4 a month, depending on his rank. So, while an average soldier might draw $13 a month, a hard-working laundress could make up to $40 or over. Not bad at all. At least it was better than prostitution. Also, they didn’t have to worry that the soldier wouldn’t pay them because the army deducted it from the men’s pay before they even got it.
While some laundresses were soundly criticized for drunkenness and loose morals, the majority were honest, hard-working, kindhearted women who made a living doing a difficult job. It’s strange that in light of the crucial service these women provided they were considered at the bottom of the social ladder. Maybe that was due in part to the fact that few could read or write.
I’d like to read some accounts of their lives but little is known. More’s the pity. Diaries and journals recording their experiences would’ve made for interesting reading.
When I was a little girl, my mother, with only an 8th grade education, took in washing and ironing to help make ends meet. I watched her slave, on her feet all day, to make a few dollars. I can’t remember what she charged to wash the clothes (seems like was $1.50,) but I remember she got paid 50 cents a dozen to iron them. I still remember the smell of that starch and the freshly pressed clothes hanging all over the house.
Do you have early recollections of someone you know doing this? I’m giving away one $10 Amazon gift card.