Story: Washing, cleaning and personal hygiene

In the 19th century washing clothes was an exhausting day-long process, usually done once a week. Hot baths were also often a weekly event, as heating water was so time-consuming. As piped water, hot water and electrical appliances became more common, keeping clean became easier.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Rooftop washing line, Wellington, 1943

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Washing clothes

Early settlers washed clothes in or near rivers and lakes, or carried water to their homes. By the 1870s cold piped water was available in the main centres, but it had to be heated for washing clothes, using a copper or washing boiler, or a tub on a fire or kitchen range. Washing clothes took a whole day – usually Monday. Clothes were dried outside on lines.

Electric washing machines became common in the 1950s, and automatic washing machines in the 1970s.

Cleaning the house

In the 19th and early 20th centuries all housework was done by hand. Wooden floors were mopped and polished, and rugs were beaten to remove dust. From the 1930s more people had electric appliances such as vacuum cleaners. Women were responsible for housework, and in the 2000s they still did more housework than men.

Bathing and personal hygiene

Women were expected to keep their family clean, to protect them from germs and disease. From 1912 the School Medical Service encouraged hygiene in schoolchildren.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries doctors recommended daily cold baths and less frequent warm or hot baths. Water for bathing often had to be heated over a fire or in the laundry copper. Some people used a washstand in a bedroom, with a basin and ewer (jug). People probably bathed more often after electrically heated water became common in the 1930s.


Traditional Māori communities kept human toilet waste separate from living and food preparation areas. Villages had paepae (latrines). These became less common after European settlement, and in the 1900s Māori health reformers encouraged the building of new paepae. Through the 20th century Māori homes were less likely than Pākehā homes to have a flush toilet.

European settlers built simple outhouses over holes (cesspits) in the backyard, and moved them when the hole was full. In the 1870s cesspits were banned, and households had to pay the night-soil man to collect toilet waste. From the late 1890s high-pressure water systems meant toilets could flush waste into sewers.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Washing, cleaning and personal hygiene', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 September 2013