J.P. sends me a photo of a huge linen hamper at 4 feet by 5 feet 4 inches of woven willow, which indicates a European origin.
These beasts were seen in hotel corridors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chambermaids loaded them with dirty towels, sheets, tablecloths, rugs, etc., in the mornings. They are the cousins of the 21st century hotel corridor cart!
I must say, J.P., this hamper brings back memories for me. When I was in my early 30s and was a new mom, I worked in theater set design and had an exchange with another designer from Russia. I took her job for a season in Moscow, and she took mine in California. My son and I stayed at the Hotel Budapest.
In the evenings when I had to monitor the performance, the cleaning ladies would occupy my little son by scooting him around the hotel corridors through the Hotel Budapest in one of these huge wicker hampers mounted on wheels. I can see him today on a pile of dirty sheets, and the two babushkas pushing the hamper. When I arrived back at the hotel, I would find my son asleep on the linens in such a hamper in the tearoom where the babushkas had a samovar constantly brewing.
J.P.’s hamper also originates from an old hotel. I bet it was French, as many extant are. They can sell for $700 to $1,500 to collectors of old wicker.
Thus, hampers were the beginning of the journey of hotel laundry, where whole roomfuls of linen throughout an hotel were loaded in such hampers. J.P.’s hamper has hand-forged wrought-iron hinges and latches; I know they are hand hammered because they are asymmetrical, as opposed to having been mold “cast.” The basket is darkened aged willow, never painted. (Try stripping paint off of wicker!) Therefore, it is a lovely white elephant piece of folk art.
Some of these are found with the initials of the hotel emblazoned. Some do not have lids, but instead have a bumper of padded fabric to protect hotel walls, some have wicker handles, some rope handles. J,P.’s has leather handles.
Some had two wheels on the bottom. The hamper could be levered to roll. (That was how my little son got around the Hotel Budapest!)
But what was the journey of the linen inside these hampers in a late 19th-century hotel?
‘Firstly, white linen was soaked overnight. Staff would soap the linen, then boil, rinse, wring and or mangle, then dry (air dry; no such a thing as a dryer existed), then starch, then iron. A mangle was necessary, of course, and in the winter months, usually a hotel had a drying room with hoists to raise the linens to air dry. Long bars were loaded with linen and pulled up in rows and rows. Usually, this room was close to the boiler room of a big hotel.
Now if just reading the process, you are exhausted, and thankful for your electric washer and dryer, you should know that linen workers were all extraordinarily strong people.
Laundry workers were either very robust women, called “washerwomen,” or hefty men, called “fullones,” and this is because the washing machine itself in such a hotel in those days was a hand cranked machine. The machine was a huge tub that required a stove close by because water was heated and poured (no water heater in the washing machine in those days).
These huge tubs were fitted inside with paddles upon rods that were cranked by hand. Think of the friction 100 sheets in one tub would cause — and how strong these workers had to be.
Most hotels had an in house laundry, but, in New York City, as Chinese immigrants opened commercial laundries, some hotels outsourced the linen. But it was still a long arduous process, and the weight of soiled linen and the labor involved was daunting.
Every morning, chambermaids collected massive loads of dirty towels, sheets, tablecloths, and sometimes uniforms in J.P.’s hamper. And some hampers were used to collect guest’s clothing, which was hand laundered. By the way, if today you stay in a classy hotel, there is often a laundry service such as this for your garments, but the bill will be equal to the room tariff, I bet.
The value of J.P.’s hamper is $700, and she writes that she has recently washed and restored it with Boiled linseed oil, which is the perfect “drink” for such a thirsty hamper.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.