8 Surprising Historical References to Laundry

Posted on 6/20/2024 by Oli

Laundry might not be the most exciting of topics, but nevertheless it's played a big role in our history, and our artistic world.

1. Rosie the Riveter and WWII: During World War II, women stepped into roles traditionally held by men, including industrial jobs. Laundry became a symbol of homefront efforts, with women juggling household chores and demanding work schedules. The need for efficient laundry practices was crucial as time was scarce. Rosie the Riveter, while not well known at the time, became a symbol of women in the workforce, and her depiction was used for decades to symbolize women's independence and contribution to the workforce. This was especially true in the laundry and textile industries post world war 2.

Funnily enough, despite Rosie's fame, the original model was misattributed for decades until it was uncovered as Naomi Parker Fraley in 2011

2. The Story of Cinderella: In the classic fairy tale, Cinderella's daily chores included doing the laundry for her stepmother and stepsisters. Her hard work and resilience are highlighted, and her laundry and housekeeping duties were a (not so) subtle way to indicate that she was a good, hardworking person in her story.

3. The Industrial Revolution: The invention of the washing machine in the 19th century revolutionized laundry practices. Before this, laundry was a labor-intensive task, often done by hand. This innovation played a significant role in the lives of many, particularly women, who spent countless hours on laundry.

While the cotton gin might have been the biggest upheaval in the beginning of the industrial revolution, the introduction of the washing machine had an even larger impact on reducing menial labor.

4. The Civil Rights Movement – The Montgomery Bus Boycott: During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, many African American domestic workers who walked long distances to work faced increased challenges with their daily tasks, including laundry. The boycott underscored the resilience and determination of the African American community, with laundry being a large part of their daily struggle as they faced challenges to work, travel, and keep their homes in order.

5. The Gold Rush: During the California Gold Rush, laundries, often run by Chinese immigrants, became essential businesses. Laundry services were in high demand among miners, highlighting the vital role of laundry in supporting this historical migration and economic boom.

Many miners who moved across the continent looking to strike it rich, often had no inkling on how to take care of some personal chores, laundry being one of them, and laundry services were sparse, if available at all. Miners would often rinse out their clothes in streams, but had little way to truly clean their clothes.

In many towns local Chinese immigrants set up and owned many menial job services in mining districts, laundry being one of them, spawning a phrase "sending my laundry to China" which later expanded to "sending my laundry to Honolulu". This phrase confused some later historians who seemed to believe miners really were sending their laundry thousands of miles across the oceans to get washed. In reality they likely sent their laundry to a local Chinese-owned laundry service.

6. The American Frontier: Pioneer women on the American frontier faced the arduous task of doing laundry by hand in challenging conditions. Laundry was an essential part of daily life, often done in streams or using makeshift washboards, showcasing the resilience of frontier families.

7. World War I Nurses: Nurses during World War I had to ensure that soldiers' bandages and uniforms were clean and sterile. Laundry was a critical aspect of maintaining hygiene and preventing infections in field hospitals. The importance placed on laundry in WW1 medical stations was relatively new at the time, but saved tens of thousands of lives.

8. Anne Frank's Diary: In "The Diary of Anne Frank," Anne writes about the small, everyday tasks they had to do while in hiding, including laundry. Laundry remained an essential chore even in the most challenging and dangerous circumstances, but also became one of the few normalcies that allowed the Frank's to keep busy while kept hidden..

Laundry, though often seen as a mundane task, has played a significant role in various historical contexts and stories.