Working Class Life in the 1940s - Wash Day
Monday is Washday
I don’t know if it is just a working class thing, but in working class homes in the 1940s and 50s Monday was always wash day.
For us Mondays meant cold meat left over from the Sunday joint with chips or bubble and squeak for dinner. This was a quick and easy meal to prepare which it needed to be because wash day was labour intensive.
I still like the taste of bubble and squeak, and I think that it is a delicious way to use up the left over vegetables.
Back then we considered it almost a sin to waste anything. Especially food if it was still edible. So we threw no food away if we could use it in another dish. Bubble and squeak was a favourite way to re use left over cooked vegetables.
Today we seem to live in a throw away world which often includes throwing away leftover food.
Groundfloor plan of our house and nextdoor
I Hated Washday
Apart from the food on washday which I loved, I hated wash days especially in the wintertime.
The reason I hated them was because doing the washing always made the whole house feel damp.
Not only was there a smell of wet clothes everywhere downstairs but also the windows would steamed up.
Even the painted brick walls of the scullery would have condensation just running down.
Because the whole downstairs felt really damp on wash days it was not a pleasant atmosphere to be in .
Like most of the people in the working class district where we lived we lived in a two up two down terraced house.
Our house was an end of terrace house. So that meant that besides the two bedrooms we had an attic accessed by a narrow staircase this was my bedroom.
Because our house was an end house my attic bedroom had a real window. All the mid-terrace houses had no window in their attic. Also access to their attic was via a hatch in the ceiling and a pull down ladder.
This is a rough layout plan of our ground floor so you can get some idea of where things are in the house. If you click on the image you can see the floor plan at full size which is a bit bigger.
A Dolly Tub
The Dolly Tub
Originally my mum did her washing in a dolly tub. During the week we kept the dolly tub in the pantry until we needed it.
A dolly tub was a galvanised metal ribbed tub which stood about two feet high.
During the week we used the dolly tub to put the dirty washing in. Anything that was dirty and needed washing we would put in the dolly tub ready for wash day to come round.
On Monday morning mum would take the dolly tub from the pantry into the scullery. There she would take the dirty washing out of the dolly tub and sort it into separate piles.
There was a pile for the whites, a pile for the coloureds and another pile for all the delicates.
Next she would sort the piles into the order that she would be washing them in.
The clothes that were the cleanest would be the first washed as the water would be re-used for the next load.
the Brick Copper
Mum would use hot water that she had heated from the copper to fill the dolly tub up.
Sometimes mum would heat pans of water instead. She put pans on the top of the gas cooker to heat heat them.
Where I lived, most houses had a built in copper in the scullery. The coppers were brick built and had a small fireplace underneath.
The small fireplace is where you built the fire to heat the water.
In the first photograph the fireplace is hidden behind the wooden lid of the copper so you can't see it.
The second photo shows a copper with its lid on. Now you can see the fireplace. Ours was a little different to these two coppers but these two photos gives an idea of what a copper looked like.
If we had a boil wash we would do the wash in the copper rather than the dolly tub.
The copper took up the whole corner of the already small scullery.
In most small terraced houses the scullery was only a small room. Our scullery was something like eight foot long and seven foot wide.
There was just enough space between the sink on one wall and the gas stove on the other to put the big tin bath on bath night.
The Posser or Dolly Peg and the Ponch
The Posser and the Ponch
Mum would put the cleanest stuff first into the dolly tub. She would often part wash some of the smaller items in the scullery sink before putting it in the dolly tub.
This kept the water in the dolly tub cleaner for longer. We used the water in the dolly tub to do more than one wash.
We agitated the washing in the dolly tub using either the posser or the ponch.
The posser sometimes also called a dolly peg had three legs and the ponch was like a copper plunger with holes in.
The ponch was used in an up and down motion. While we turned the posser clockwise then anti-clockwise. Much like the central agitators type washing machines.
The materials that our clothing was made from back then was unforgiving. Make a mistake at the washing stage or the ironing stage and you were stuck with the results.
Clothing made from wool I remember was a particular case in point. Wash woollen clothing in water too hot and you would be left with a matted miniature of your original.
Many a younger child in the family inherited the favourite jumper of an elder sibling this way.
The shrunken jumper was impossible to return to its previous shape. It was easy to see that the jumper had been shrunk in the wash.
I don’t think that anyone liked wearing clothing that had shrunk. But many a family could not afford just to throw stuff away.
If it was possible for another member of the family to squeeze into the item that had shrunk, then they would wear it.
Even though a shrunken garment did not look particularly good it was still functional.
The Mangle and the Blue Bag
After the washing had been done then came the arduous task of rinsing the soap out of the washing.
First mum would ring as much of the soapy water out of the washing by hand as she could, this water going back into to dolly tub to be used for the next load of washing. Having rung out as much as could be rung out by hand then the washing would be put through a mangle to squeeze out as much water as possible.
The mangle that we had was a big wrought iron mangle with huge wooden rollers on and it used to live in the back yard just outside of the back door.
After that the washing would be rinsed in cold water in the big stone scullery sink until the water ran clear and there seemed to be no soap left in the clothes.
If the items being rinsed were white often a Reckitt's blue bag was added to the rinsing water at this stage.
These blue bags made your whites look white again. Often the whites especially if bars of washing soap had been used to wash them would tend to go a little yellow the blue bag countered this and restored the appearance of the whites.
When mum was satisfied that the soap had been removed from the clothes they would then be mangled again until all the water that could be squeezed out was squeezed out.
The space between the rollers could be adjusted by screwing the handles on the top of the mangle. If you look at the photo of the mangle above you can see the large threaded bolt on the side that made this adjustment.
I remember winding the mangle in our back yard for my mum as she fed in the wet washing.After being mangled the sheets used to be so tightly squeezed between the rollers that they used to come out from between the rollers almost horizontal and as stiff as a board.
This is a photo of two children doing what thousands of children did each week. This mangle was smaller than ours but it gives you an idea of what we looked like. All this physical work kept us pretty fit as kids.
It was amazing just how much water could be removed from the washing by these old fashioned mangles. When it was cold outside mum’s fingers used to get so cold and chapped.
It was incredibly hard work and washday was something that had to be done each week, no matter what the weather.
Washing that had particularly grubby areas like socks or the collars and cuffs of shirts etc would first be treated to some intensive hand washing.
This was done using a bar of washing soap and a washboard with ridges on it and it would be done in the stone sink in the scullery to get the worst of the grime off.
This served two purposes one it got most of the grime out before it went into the dolly tub to be washed thus making sure the hard to clean parts were dealt with properly and two it kept the water in the dolly tub from getting dirty too quick.
The Ascot and the Washing Machine
The Ascot and the Washine Machine
What a relief when we had the ascot water heater put in the scullery over the sink and the brick copper taken out.For the first time ever we had hot water on demand, we never had anything more than the one cold water tap and the gas Ascot and they remained the only source of water in the whole house.
Then of course came the washing machine. The first washing machine we had was loaded from the top and over the top of the washing machine there was an electric mangle.
I can still remember the day when mum was doing the washing using the washing machine and she called me to come quick. Mum had been feeding the washing through the mangle and it had taken her right hand with it. The stop button and quick release for the mangle was on the righthand side of the washing machine and mum couldn’t reach it with her free left hand.
Don’t let the small size of the mangle fool you those rollers exerted a terrific amount of pressure and there were a lot of injuries inflicted by this type of electric mangle.
It was lucky that I was there as it had taken mum’s hand up to the wrist by the time I managed to stop the machine and release her. The pressure exerted by these mangles on the washing was tremendous and it made quite a mess of mum’s hand. Her hand was black and blue for weeks after and very painful.
The Washing Machine in Action
To give you some idea of one of these types of washing machines in action here is a small video of one that I found on you tube. You can see from this small video that even with a machine it was still very labour intensive and demanded your attention unlike the automatics of today.
A Washing Machine in Action
A look into the future
I found this video made in the 1940s that looks into the future to show how wash day would go in the future.
This is a fascinating video, you see the woman doing the wash and this was very similar to what I remember being my mum's experience after she got her first washing machine in the mid 1950s, that is apart from the utility room and the flat iron.
The things shown in this video are portrayed as a dream come true where most of the hard work has been taken over by modern appliances.
When you watch it in light of our experiences today you can still get some idea how hard was day was back then.
Some of the things in this video became normal for the ordinary working class housewife but some never came into most working class districts back then.
Washing Day late 1940's film
Never Leave Your Washing Unattended
Around the mid fifties a Bendix coin operated laundry opened locally and my mum would sometimes use them, sometimes she would do the laundry there but other times I would be sent to do it. Compared to doing it at home it was very easy as the washing machine was fully automatic all you had to do was load it and put in the measured amount of soap powder which even a child could manage that. If you had any trouble there was a manager who would show you how to do it she would also do for a small fee what was called a service wash. In a Service wash you dropped off your dirty washing and later on you picked it up clean, dry and folded.
Mum liked the Bendix that was until one day when everything changed. Mum had been to the Bendix and she had put a load of washing into the machine and set it going. Rather than sit there just watching the machine she decided to pop over the road to the local pub for a drink while she was waiting. When she came back she found the washing machine that she had put our washing into empty. While she had been in the pub someone had stolen all our washing out of the machine. They had not waited until it had finished its cycle they had lifted it out while it was still soaking wet.
For weeks after this I was constantly looking at people in the street to see if I could see some one wearing our clothes. We never did find out who took them and my mum never left her washing unattended again. We didn’t use the Bendix much after that experience.
The Public Laundry or the Wash house
Even in the forties before the Bendix coin operated laundry arrived not everyone did their washing at home some use to go to the big public laundry that most towns and cities would have. These places were still in operation in our city of Nottingham right up until the last ones were closed down in 1970. I have a bit of video taken of the Victoria wash house taken in 1969 shortly before it closed down. The sights and sounds that you will see on this video are little different to the sights you would have seen in the 1940’s and 50’s.
The Victoria Public Laundry
This Video is well worth watching it starts with a woman pushing her weekly wash to the wash house in an old pram. This was often the only means of transportation that folks had available back then. The pram was used to transport all sorts of things including bags of coal in fact anything heavy that the housewife needed to move the pram would be pressed into service.
These laundries were often preferred to doing the washing in your own home especially if you had a large family. Here in the public laundry everything was on hand plus it was also a social outing too where people would chat and help each other with the tasks. It is hard to imagine that this Public Laundry was still being used in 1969.
If you think living this way was hard work then you would be right but just imagine what it must have been like in the early part of the 1940’s when there was a World War going on. During the war to the already hard living conditions you had to add air-raids, being bombed and working around all the shortages that being at war introduced.
This generation of working class women was a very stoic and inventive one they were the unsung home-front heroes who made an abnormal way of life feel as normal as possible in spite of all that was going on around them. I wonder if today’s women could do as well under similar circumstances?
I hope that you have enjoyed this small trip back to the washdays of the forties and fifties. If you have enjoyed reading this hub you might like to read some of the other hubs that I have written about working class life a list of them with links is below.
Questions & Answers
What about washing laundry in the bath by using your feet?
We never washed anything by using our feet, though we did use a small tin bath sometimes to rinse the soap out of the larger items. But we would not have used our feet, we would have used either the Posser/ Dolly Peg, or the Ponch to agitate the water not our feet.