My first memories of my mother doing the wash was of the squishing, splashing and grinding of our old white enameled motorized washing tub in our cellar. It had rollers stuck on top to squeegee most of the water out of the clothes, getting them ready to hang out to dry on our clothes-line overhanging our back yard garden. I often had the job to "take in the clothes" from the line. In summer I loved doing this, hanging out the window and pulling the line closer on the pulleys as I worked, and afterwards nuzzling my nose into the sun-warmed towels and shirts, sucking in the freshest smell imaginable. In winter, I would pull in cardboard-like, frozen clothing... pants and shirts looking as if someone was flattened by a steam roller. The towels would be stiff as a large baccala dried fish.
As modern conveniences developed, my mother got a washer and dryer in the basement of her new suburban house. Even when she was well into her eighties, I remember visiting and catching her, moving one step at a time, bringing up a basket of laundry from the cellar, all folded neatly and smelling almost a nice as when we sun-dried them. She was a tough lady.
Her mother was even tougher. In her Hoboken, NJ apartment, she washed her clothes in a sink using only a washboard.
As I write this, I'm listening to be beep-beeps and musical chimes produced by our front load modern washer in our second floor laundry room. It's nearly effortless, allowing my wife Lisa to drop a load of wash as she heads up to her third floor office. OK, I know... I should do the laundry more often. Nowadays, doing the laundry is not just women's work.
Le Lavandaie of Italy's Past
When we complain about how hard it is to do household tasks, I often think of how our Italian ancestors dealt with the hardships of everyday life.
Looking at historic photos of the lavandaie (washerwomen) of Italy's past, I consider how hard Italian women had to work at cleaning their cloths. Early on in history, the contadina (country woman) would wash clothes in the nearby river, on her knees, regardless of season or weather. They would bring a wooden washboard to the river, some of these were very wide, offering a communal laundering experience. Some households had their own wooden troughs with a washboard built-in, but water would still have to hauled from the river or local fountain in order to use it.
It wasn't until 1897 that the first public lavatoio (wash house) was built in towns and villages around Italy. Some had roofs with open sides--similar to market structures--to keep the women out of the sun and rain. Many were built near existing streams, and were designed to direct the fresh running water through a trough. Still others had plumbing and elevated wash tanks, allowing women to stand while they washed clothes. What a luxury this simple change must have been!
At the bare basics, a lavandaie needed troughs or tubs where fresh water ran through, and an inclined concrete or stone ramp where they could soap up and agitate the clothes and sheets with a two-handed motion similar to kneading dough. Then they would slap the clothes on the ramp to rid them of suds, dirt and odors. They used solid soap, often made locally as a by product of the slaughtering process.
White fabrics, especially sheets, needed to be bleached--a bit of a complex process. The day before, sheets were soaked in boiling water with wood ashes (the bleaching agent, called ranno) and bay leaves, lavender or rosemary (adding a fresh scent).
To dry, first the sheets were beaten and then it took two women to wring them out due to the heavy, waterlogged weight. Both clothing and sheets were hung to dry in the sun. Still today in modern Italy, hanging clothes in the sun is the preferred way to dry clothes and while Italian households today might have a washer, they rarely have a clothes dryer.
Some women called bugadere did the laundry for people who could afford to pay for the service. This was a profession for women only, and only for single women, since most men wouldn't want their wives touching other peoples' dirty laundry. As you can surmise, this was considered a lowly profession.
Housewives who did their family's laundry would go home when finished, but the bugadere was at the lavatoio all day long. Some of these "professional" washerwomen stayed at the village lavatoio and women would bring their laundry to them for washing. Others had clients and went to homes to pick up the laundry, carrying the heavy loads in jute bags (often on their heads). Each client's laundry was identified with a different color ribbon tied to each bag because writing a name on each would have served no purpose since most were illiterate.
You can often find a woman''s profession listed as "washerwoman" on some Ellis Island ship manifests. If you find a washerwomen in your history, be proud. That must have been a tough way to earn a little money to contribute to the welfare of their families.
Washing Methods and Materials
There were various detergents used by lavandaie. The most common and also the least expensive was the so-called ranno, used both for for degreasing and bleaching. The technique involved filtering hot water poured over wood ash through an old linen sheet draped as a filter over a large bucket. Underneath this ash filter were the previously washed fabrics to be bleached.
Many lavatoio also contained a large hearth with a large suspended cauldron to heat water for the ranno bleaching. In later years, de-greasing was accomplished by the use of sodium carbonate (similar to baking soda); lye solutions, used both for washing and whitening; Varecchina, for bleaching and stain removal; during the first rinse or ranno, crushed eggshells were added; indigo was also added as a blueing agent; in the final rinsing, lavender, bay leaves or rosemary were added to provide sweet or fresh scents; as bar soap became available it was also used, often grated into smaller pieces that could be sprinkled on clothes as they were washed.
Copyright 2020, Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageItaly.com - All Rights Reserved
In the video above, these ladies are seen adding wood ash
to their tub to start the bleaching of their sheets.
School boys hosting a historic demonstration by these lavandaie.
A traditional song about washerwomen.