Friday, April 2, 2021

1898 Mangle: Laundry Is the Mother of Invention

Have you ever wondered what doing laundry was like in the 1800s? Today, most laundry routines consist of shifting clothes between washing machines and dryers. But what kind of technology was involved in laundry in the nineteenth century?

Trade card for the Bench Wringer
Collection of Historic New England
Laundry in the Victorian era would have been a very time-consuming process. Collecting, cleaning, and drying out the clothes would have taken hours. According to The Library Company of Philadelphia, “clothes would be soaped, boiled or scalded, rinsed, wrung out, mangled, dried, starched, and ironed, often with steps repeating throughout.” Victorian clothing often included delicate fabrics, intricate detailing, and unique closures, all of which would have affected how a garment was cleaned. Making laundry even more challenging was the fact that many households in the 1800s did not have running water.
People living in rural areas would often have to travel a distance to a water pump. Families in urban areas would often only have access to communal water sources that were far away from the home and in demand. The Gibsons' neighborhood was a notable exception since the Back Bay area had indoor plumbing at this time. The Back Bay area was one of the earliest Boston neighborhoods to have indoor plumbing. In the late 1800s, the water was provided by the Fort Hill Tank, but as time went on more advanced tanks were used. The technology used to clean clothes also rapidly evolved.

Mangle, c.1898
Gibson House Museum (2007.35)
Inventions to ease the laundry process were created throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Irons, ironing boards, boiling tubs, washboards, and mangles—large wringers used to extract excess water from fabric—were all invented or improved during this period. The wooden and metal mangle featured at the Gibson House was made by the American Wringer Co. in 1898. Laundry was placed in between the two large rollers, and then the crank handle on the side was turned to squeeze out any liquid. While it reduced the amount of physical work involved in wringing out clothes by hand, the mangle still required arm strength and patience to operate. Mangles were especially useful in cities that were starting to restrict the use of clotheslines, such as Boston.

Middle-class and elite families like the Gibsons could afford hired help to do their laundry. For example, Mary McDonnald Crocker, a long-time domestic worker employed by the Gibsons, is most likely the person who operated the mangle. Mary would have completed many different household chores during her eighteen-year-long career with the Gibsons, but her duties as laundress were perhaps the most laborious. Overall, this mangle provides an interesting glimpse into the lives of domestic workers, the technology of the Victorian era, and the division of labor in a household.

- Megan Watts, Curatorial Intern, Fall 2020

To learn more:

No comments:

Post a Comment