Story: Washing, cleaning and personal hygiene

Page 1. Washing clothes

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Washing clothes by hand

Early European settlers either transported water from rivers and lakes to their homes for washing clothes, or did the washing in or near these natural waterways. If servants were employed, they did the washing. Women sometimes took in the dirty washing of wealthier families to earn a living.

Cold piped water was available in the main centres by the 1870s. However, proper laundering required hot water. Gasworks were established in urban areas in the late 1870s, but gas-heated water was rare. Many households had a copper or washing boiler (a large, upright concrete cylinder with a firebox in the bottom and a chimney at the back), but some still made do with tubs filled with water heated on a kitchen range or over an open fire.

Blue Monday

Monday was washday and, in the eyes of many, ‘Blue Monday’, because it was a day of hot, exhausting drudgery. In the early 1900s New Zealand newspapers reported that an American scientist had found that more women died by suicide on Monday than any other day of the week. This was attributed to Monday being washday – ‘the one day in the week when a housewife’s troubles, hard work, and annoyances seem to come at once. Hence the significant name [Blue Monday] for the first working day of the week.’1 The more common explanation was the use of blue dye in washing.

Doing the household washing by hand was a day’s work and therefore only done once a week – Monday was usually washday. Typically, dirty items were scrubbed on a wooden or glass washboard then boiled with soap in the copper, which was lit early in the morning. Next, the items were removed with a wooden stick, rinsed with cold water and wrung out, either by hand or with a wringer. The washing was dried outside or on an airing rack over the kitchen range. Bluing (the addition of a substance containing blue dye to make whites whiter) and starching (stiffening collars and petticoats) were additional steps.

Washing machines

While basic washing machines (boxes or barrels containing a hand-powered rotary chamber) were available in the 19th century, a truly mechanised domestic washing process required electricity. Most cities and towns were electrified by 1920, but electricity was expensive, so power was mainly used for lighting.

In the 1930s cheaper electricity allowed for greater uptake of electric hot-water cylinders and appliances, including washing machines. However, the machines were expensive and limited to wealthier households. Over time they dropped in price, and by 1956 over half of New Zealand households had an electric washing machine. This grew to over 90% in 1971.

Mind that wringer

Electric wringers could be traps for the unwary and inattentive. In 1941, 16-year-old Ina Taafe of Kaitāia was strangled when a silk scarf she was wearing accidentally made its way into the washing machine’s wringer. She was doing the washing alone and was unable to turn the machine off. More fortunate people got away with a squashed hand. The hazards of washing were nothing new – burns from fire and boiling water in coppers were common.

Labour saving?

Electric washing machines were described as labour-saving devices in advertisements and magazines, and they did reduce the amount of physical toil required to get the household washing clean. However, the early machines did not save much time – they needed to be monitored (a lever was depressed to let the dirty water out, for instance), and wet items were fed into an electric wringer by hand. Women also started doing the washing more frequently, and any spare time afforded by other electric appliances was soon filled with household tasks.

Fully automatic washing machines which washed and spun clothes were more common from the 1970s and some households had electric clothes dryers. Compared to toiling over the boiler and feeding clothes through the wringer, doing the washing with these machines was a simple, quick task.

Washing location

The site of washing has moved from outdoors to indoors, from a detached building to a room within the house.

Māori washing beliefs

In traditional Māori communities anything associated with the body was kept separate from food preparation, a belief which has survived into the 21st century. Items used in food preparation should be kept separate from those which have come into contact with the body – kitchen tea towels and tablecloths are washed separately from clothes. Bathing babies in a kitchen sink is a real no-no.

When water had to be fetched by hand, washing was sometimes done outside or near a natural waterway. 19th-century villas and cottages typically had separate washhouses containing the copper in the back garden near the door, though some built later in the century had an inside washhouse. The washhouse was indoors in bungalows of the 1910s and 1920s, at the back of the house near the kitchen and bathroom, or in the basement.

Unsurprisingly, given their prosaic function, washhouses (or laundries as they are sometimes called) have continued to occupy marginal, out-of-the-way spaces in the home. In apartments the washing machine is often in the kitchen or bathroom or a small cupboard.

Laundromats are less common in New Zealand than in other countries.

  1. Bruce Herald, 1 March 1904, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Washing, cleaning and personal hygiene - Washing clothes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 Sep 2013