What are these objects I list here, and what were they used for? I’m referring to washbats, washboards, a washbox, washing dollies, peggy legs, possers, possing sticks, dollypegs, peggy, maiden, plunger, ponches and punchers?”
All these were used to wash clothes with or without a wash-tub, and sometimes at the edge of a stream or river, or inside a public washhouse, or off a boat, or in the public fountain.
J.E. has an early 20th-century washboard, and this is the American cousin of the objects listed above, in use by the 1860s across the nation but invented in 1833 by Stephen Rust of New York, who patented a wood frame that held a fluted piece of tin, iron or zinc.
These ridges dislodged dirt from clothing. Advertisements for these things can be found in the mid-19th-century, but by the later part of the 1800s, the boards were “improved” by Herman Liebmann of Chicago, who replaced the metal plate insert in the board with ridged glass or porcelain. This is the version J.E. has.
Laundry day was an ordeal, which for years was done by specialist washerwomen — if the family could afford such help.
In many parts of the world, getting clothes and linens clean was done once a week, or once a month, or once a year depending on the item. Usually the day was Monday, especially in those traditionally Catholic countries, because in many cases it took quite a few days to wash, dry and fold the linen, and the family wanted peace and no work on Sunday.
It’s easy today to think that a garment is dried in the dryer, but even a warm room was hard to find in some parts of the world. Where most of the year was rainy and cold, laundry was an ordeal; and sometimes done only in the sunlit months.
Before the washboard, there were washing bats, flat wooden ridged boards with a long handle, which could be used to beat and or agitate, and to lever clothing from a tub or river. Decorative washing bats could be found in the 18th and 19th centuries in Finland, Norway and Italy. Tilted boards with a slope for the water to drain mounted on legs were found in England, and used art on the side of a river or side of a tub.
J.E. also sent me a painting of washing day in France, in the Impressionistic style, with an illegible signature. This shows us the early tradition of riverside washing day in France, a subject beloved of French artists. You see two washerwomen — one in a tub or in a three sided box, and the other on a ledge — with a pile of linen to wash in the foreground, which appears to have been soaked in bluing or lye.
A French tradition was the three-sided box lined with straw in which washerwomen knelt at the side of the river. The box kept the skirts dry. Across the front at an angle the women held a washboard or bat. One of the women appears to be on the water, and this was done as well in a small wooden tub at the river edge. Some washerwomen in continental Europe washed on washing benches, which could be set in shallow water. The object was to pulverize the fabric. Different bats and boards and plungers (like a toilet plunger) were used depending on the strength of the fabric. The object was water flow. Fabrics when wet were heavy: washerwomen were very strong.
One travel writer, John Price Durbin, wrote “Observations in Europe 1844,” noting the “sturdy washerwomen (the job was physically demanding) by the side of French rivers with a washerwoman’s ark (a little wooden raft) or a bench at the side of the water; the bench was used to souse the clothes which would be beaten with a washing bat after soaking in the river …” I love the old word “souse,” which means to drown or make sodden. Today the word is associated with a “drunkard!”
Communal washing day amongst washerwomen was common throughout Europe, either at river-edge, in a village washhouse, at the public fountain in the main square. In France, the bateau-lavoir was a communal laundry boat moored close to the riverbank.
J.E.’s washboard is common as an antique as most American homes had one, even after the invention of the mechanical washing machine with a drum in the 1860s. Of course, not every American household could afford such a thing, so washboards and tubs were de rigor. The value today is $50.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Saturdays 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.