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Washing, cleaning and personal hygiene

by Kerryn Pollock

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.

Washing clothes

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.

    • Bruce Herald, 1 March 1904, p. 2. Back

Household cleaning

Hard work by hand

In the 19th and early 20th centuries cleaning the house was a daily task done by hand. All jobs involved physical labour.

Dishes were washed by hand in a basin or sink. Later Victorian and Edwardian interiors were often crammed with ornaments, which required regular, careful dusting. Fixed carpets were rare and most houses had painted or varnished wooden floors and rugs. The floor was regularly mopped and polished. The heavy rugs were hauled outside and beaten to remove dust and other detritus. Because this was so difficult, rugs were cleaned infrequently. The advent of carpet sweepers in the late 19th century made this job a little easier.

Domestic science

The germ theory of disease, formulated in the late 19th century, elevated household cleaning to a scientific endeavour. Women were charged with ridding their homes of the unseen germs that threatened the family’s health.

Electric appliances

Electric appliances became more common in New Zealand homes in the 1920s as towns and cities were connected to the national grid. Both the electricity and appliances were expensive and only found in wealthy homes. The number of appliances increased in the 1930s and 1940s and they became far more common in the 1950s.

Electric vacuum cleaners were a key device in the war against household germs and were seen as far superior to older methods of cleaning. In the 1930s, advertisements for Electrolux models declared: ‘Whenever you flick a duster or move a broom – you release countless disease-laden germs within your home’.1 Dishwashers were a post-Second World War innovation and something most households did without until the 21st century.

By the 1960s New Zealand’s rate of appliance ownership was high by international standards. In 1963, 92% of New Zealand households owned a vacuum cleaner, compared to 76% of Australian and 72% of British households.

Pop & rattle

A writer for the literary journal Here & Now wrote about the charms of the vacuum cleaner in 1953: ‘Now I can spend happy hours dreamily sucking fluff and crayons out of corners and listening to the pop and rattle as they rush up the tube and into the tidy little bag that saves me even the trouble of fetching the dustpan and brush.’2 The irony is palpable.

Cleaning products

Most housewives made their own soap in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fat from cooking was carefully hoarded. After enough had been collected it was heated and the separated fat was skimmed off the top. This was boiled with resin, water, borax and caustic soda and left to cool and set. The block was cut up into cakes of soap. Commercially made soap was available from the 19th century. Dishwashing detergent was introduced around the 1950s.

Who cleans

Some households employed servants to do cleaning in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but demand for servants outstripped supply in New Zealand. In households without servants, the women and girls of the house did the bulk of the cleaning. The introduction of electric appliances did not alter the status quo. Recent time use surveys have found that women spend more time than men cleaning. In the 1998–99 survey women did 43 minutes of indoor cleaning each day and men did 12 minutes, while in 2009–10 women did 32 minutes and men 10 minutes. Some households that could afford it paid professional cleaners. This became more common as women entered the paid workforce.

    • Evening Post, 26 June 1931, p. 5. Back
    • Quoted in Sandra Coney, Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 215. Back

Bathing and personal hygiene

Monitoring cleanliness

In the 19th century scientific discoveries about the role of bacteria in causing illness, and the development of urban sanitation systems, highlighted the value not only of clean towns, waterways and homes, but also of personal cleanliness.

Women were charged with getting rid of germs and keeping their families clean and healthy, aided by guidebooks, newspaper and magazine articles, and agencies like the Department of Public Health (established in 1900) and the Plunket Society (1907).

From 1912 the School Medical Service monitored children’s hygiene – school nurses tackled issues like body and head lice. From the 1920s trainee teachers were given physical examinations and hygiene lessons so they could be models of cleanliness. Children’s hygiene was also a focus of health camps, which started in 1919.

Clean and shiny children

In 1938 School Medical Service officers reported favourably on children’s hygiene. Dr Phillipps noted that ‘the cleanliness of the children, both in person and clothing, is in the main extremely good. It is rare to see a child at school who is not clean and tidy.’ Dr McLaglan wrote: ‘The rank and file of the children are exceptionally well, rosy, sleek and waggish. They are mostly clean and vermin [lice] incidence is lower than ever before.’1

By the late 1930s health agencies were claiming credit for reducing the incidence of ‘dirt diseases’ like impetigo (school sores) and scabies, as well as lice, among children. The role of technology in making it easier to keep clean was unacknowledged.


In the 19th and early 20th centuries, doctors recommended daily cold baths and warm or hot baths less often. Educationalist James Pope advised that frequent hot baths made the blood flow away from the heart and lungs. It is unclear how common cold baths actually were.

Frequent hot or warm baths were impractical because heating water was so time-consuming. A weekly warm bath was common, with water heated over a kitchen fire or in the laundry copper. In the 1880s kitchen ranges with boilers dispensing hot water by tap were available. Baths were taken in a tin bath filled by hand. Some older people used a washstand in a bedroom, with a basin and ewer. Some towns and cities had public baths, where people paid to bathe.

Bathing eventually increased in frequency after electrically heated water became more common in the 1930s. By then, cheap, commercially made soap was readily available. School doctors recommended a daily cold and weekly warm bath, highlighting the still limited availability of hot water.

In 1951 the ‘Survey of dirty children’ investigated 107 children living in Auckland’s Freemans Bay, then a poor suburb. Half the homes had no bath and 90% no hand-washing basin. This highlighted the links between hygiene, poverty and ethnicity – almost two-thirds of the children were Māori or Pacific.

By the 1960s most houses had a hot-water service, making it easier to wash in hot water regularly. Doctors have realised that over-use of soap caused skin problems like eczema, while excessive cleaning damaged skin and made it vulnerable to germs.

The miracle of soap and water

In 1977, aged 86, politician John A. Lee wrote: ‘Men have gone to the moon and marvelled, but no greater event occurred on this earth than the abundance of soap and the unheralded arrival of hot and cold water by the turning of a tap. It is a gift of my lifetime, as is the leisure to use it. A rocket to the moon put millions of miles on to exploration potential; but hygiene – made possible by instant hot and cold water – probably doubled our life span’.2


Around the 1890s new houses started to include separate bathrooms at the back. Some had both baths and showers. By the 1930s bathrooms were more centrally positioned and bigger. Large houses sometimes had more than one bathroom, a common feature for new dwellings in the early 2000s.

Body odour

The weekly baths of the 19th and early 20th centuries meant that body odour caused by perspiration was unremarkable, except when particularly offensive odour was seen as a sign of illness or a problem like constipation. Sweaty, smelly feet were less acceptable, and deodorising powders were available. Perfume was used by some to mask body smells.

By the 1920s and 1930s people – particularly women – were expected to eliminate body odour through regular washing and use of deodorant. Women were encouraged to remove underarm hair. In the 1970s alternative lifestylers and feminists rejected deodorant and razors in favour of a ‘natural’ look and smell, although most people continued to see body odour as offensive. In the early 2000s a vast array of products was available to counteract the body’s smells.


Menstruating women used home-made pads made by cutting up towels and sheets until the 1920s, when commercial sanitary pads became available. Tampons were available from the 1930s. Women have always concealed evidence of menstruation, and in traditional Māori societies, menstruating women were restricted in their activities.



Māori practices

Traditional Māori communities kept human waste separate from living quarters and food preparation areas. 18th-century European explorers observed this and some, such as James Cook, compared the sanitation practices of Māori communities favourably to those of European towns.

Villages had paepae (latrines) which served individual houses or small groups of people. In hilltop , paepae were commonly built on the side of the hill well away from other buildings. Paepae were tapu (sacred) to stop human waste being used in mākutu (sorcery). This was a religious belief, but grounded in the knowledge that human waste could cause illness if not carefully disposed of.

Traditional sanitation practices broke down in the wake of European colonisation, as new diseases and land loss crippled Māori communities. Separate paepae were no longer the norm and declining belief in mākutu meant people defecated in the bush around villages without fear.

In the early 1900s Māori health reformers led by Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) undertook a campaign to build new paepae in Māori villages. This led to sanitary improvements in some villages, but progress was slow. In the mid-1950s, 67% of Māori homes had no flush toilet, compared to 17% of non-Māori homes. By the early 1970s Māori homes without flush toilets had dropped to 11%, but this figure was still high compared with non-Māori homes (3%). Outside paepae became inside wharepaku (toilets).

Sod’s law

Some early European settlers built fairly primitive privy outhouses out of mānuka. Forked branches in the ground supported a strong branch or rail which acted as a seat. Two upright branches on either side of the seat were gripped by the occupant and a back rail provided further support. Some built outhouses out of earth sods, but these were not a good idea if the privy was not fenced off – roaming cattle liked to rub against the sods, which tended to cave in and create a foul mess.

European practices

19th-century European settlers were less scrupulous than traditional Māori communities in their attitudes to human waste, although it was not simply a matter of defecating anywhere. Simple privies or outhouses were built over holes (cesspits) in the backyard and moved when the hole was full. People were confronted with human waste daily and had to tolerate the smell. It was a fact of life and tolerable for many – after cesspits were banned in the 1870s, people continued to use them for reasons of thrift, even though this could incur a fine.

Night-soil men were paid by households to collect human waste after cesspits were banned. Households had to leave the waste out for collection, but their contact with it ended there – the poorly paid night-soil man had to deal with it from that point.

The lavatory tree

Some 19th-century New Zealanders planted the datura plant next to their outdoor privy to screen it off and mask unpleasant smells. It was colloquially known as the ‘lavatory tree’. Climbing roses and honeysuckle were also trained to grow up the outhouse.

Toilet developments

Developments in waste disposal and toilet technology increasingly separated people from the waste their bodies produced.

In the late 19th century permanent toilets – water or earth closets – started to appear in homes. Initially, water closets simply flushed the waste in water into a cesspit (which was regularly emptied). Earth closets contained a bucket, and the contents were covered with dirt and then left out for the night-soil man.

It was only when high-pressure water-based sanitation systems were installed that most people no longer had to handle the household’s human waste. The first high-pressure system was built in Wellington in 1899. Toilets could now flush waste away from the home into sewers. In more remote areas though, flushing toilets remained a dream until the second half of the 20th century.

Location of toilets

Like washing facilities, toilets moved from outside to inside, in line with developments in piped water and waste disposal. The backyard privy (often called the dunny) was common well into the 20th century, but the toilet made its move into the back verandah of new houses in the late 19th century. In the early 1900s the toilet was fully integrated into new houses, either in a small room next to the bathroom or within the bathroom. Two-storeyed houses often had a toilet upstairs. The general location and appearance of toilets has not changed much since then.

In the 1950s scientists believed bacteria was released from flushing toilets and stayed in the air. This led to a rule, enforced by local councils, that toilets had to be separated from kitchens by two doors. It was later found that the bacteria did not travel far and the rule was relaxed in the early 1990s. Modern building regulations require one door between a toilet and the kitchen and food storage areas.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Washing, cleaning and personal hygiene', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 February 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013