One of the many problems with modern life is that it is so easy to take for granted the modern inventions that make our existence so easy. The moment one of them packs up, however, you have to re-learn skills that our grannies took in their stride. Thus, I found myself up to my elbows in hot soapy water, scrubbing and wringing heavy, grumpy clothing after the door seal on our washing machine broke last weekend. All is not lost because the new one is being fitted on Monday but until then I have to scrub and knead and wring and hang all the washing for the family. It is exhausting. I now really, really want a mangle. Anyway, all this time in hot water made me think about Victorian images of Laundresses...
|Gossip (1885) John William Waterhouse|
I'm not sure I actually thought laundry was going to be fun, but I thought there would be some pleasant old-fashioned jollity to be had, as displayed in Gossip above. As it turned out, the amount of time I spent in the garden pinning heavy, wet washing out to drip meant I did find out more than was strictly necessary about my neighbours. Yikes. I must learn to peg-out faster...
|Washerwomen in the morning at Quimperle Fritz Thaulow|
Possibly the mistake I made was to do the washing in the kitchen sink. A far more communal way to do it is in the local river. I admit I don't have a local river (other than when the drains are up) but there is a duckpond nearby with only a modest number of rats. I could have merrily bonded with my neighbours as we scrubbed together.
|Washerwomen by the River (1860) Paul Gauguin|
|Venetians (1885) Samuel Fildes|
Glorious, and a jolly nice way to meet our neighbours. Although, saying that, I do know a bit too much about our neighbour and I'm not sure I want to discuss it with her. Plus, all these rivers are crystal clear and sparkly and not that sort of muddy, funny smelling green colour that the duck pond is. Plus, none of them have the rats, which I do not believe would assist me in my washing. On to plan B then...
|Le Linge (1875) Edouard Manet|
If my fellow residents can't be relied on for communal laundry, maybe I should get my daughter Lily-Rose to assist me, as shown by Manet above. How utterly delightful it would be for the pair of us to wash clothes in our colourful garden in the sparkly sunshine. Only now it's autumn it all looks a little Somme-ish out there, and my daughter isn't small and cute anymore, she tall and reasonably belligerent if I was to suggest a fun game of wash-all-the-clothes. Now, if I suggested that she washed a large bucket of puppies in the back garden she'd be out there like a shot. Her own pants? Not so keen.
|Women doing laundry through a hole in the ice (1891) Jahn Ekenaes|
Still it could be worse. It's only autumn, the weather is still mercifully quite warm and we have had some blustery, sunny days that have made my life a little easier. I have yet to break the ice on the duckpond to scrub my husband's socks. There would have to be a discussion before that took place. I mean really, laundry is hard enough without having to cut holes in ice. I bet the little boy is thinking 'when I get home I'm finding out how long it will take to walk to Spain...'
|Washing Day (1906) William Russell Flint|
Being without a washing machine has made me really appreciate just how much logical planning has to go into washing otherwise. We have never owned a tumble dryer, but we have air dryers and radiators, so drying clothes on wet days was never much of a problem, however washing them in the sink, then rinsing, then wringing out, that's a whole different matter. Without a mangle you will never get enough water out of a garment and so outdoor drying is necessary unless you want wet floors. That means at least 10 hours of dry, warmish weather, preferably breezy, just to get it sort of damp rather than dripping. Then it takes another day inside to dry off. I have found myself prioritising items of clothing, like school uniform, socks, knickers, and wondering if things like cardigans can last a day or two longer than I'd normally give them.
|A Woman's Work (1912) John Sloan|
Mind you, there is enormous satisfaction in doing something the old fashioned way, and just for a moment feeling like you have not become a useless 21st century person. All this is firmly in the knowledge that it is a temporary measure, obviously. I have no aspiration to become like my grandmother who held down a full time job and had to do all the housework too.
|Laundresses Marie Petiet|
I should at this point admit one thing. I am not, and have never been, an ironer. I will merrily scrub away, but the only time I iron anything is (a) party dress or (b) when I'm sewing seams. Otherwise, I am constantly in an ensemble of jersey. I don't have the motivation to iron pillowcases. I am duly ashamed of myself.
|The Laundress (1916) Robert Henri|
There is a sort of glamorous in domestic labour captured in art. Like Communist posters of workers and farmers, the laundresses of Victorian art have a nobility in their work. These are not feeble women, looking pretty and whimsome (apart possibly from Fildes' bunch). Instead they are strong, capable women, hard at work. I have a few questions about why they are often pictured from behind, although I'm sure I can guess the answers, but images such as Henri's magnificent Laundress above makes even the most mundane task seem a little more beautiful. If I was being optimistic about artist representation for a moment, I would argue that these images show how there was perceived beauty in usefulness. These artists showed that there was as much, if not more beauty in a woman working with a purpose, than in a society portrait. These are women too busy to sit down to be painted, but when they are portraits, there is nothing sexualised about them. There is dignity in their work and in themselves. It might not have been the reality, but it is a positive image none the less.
Roll on Monday...