PUBLIC LAUNDRIES : THEIR ORIGINS, ROLE AND HISTORY
Together with the refrigerator, the washing machine is the commonest domestic appliance to be found in households the world over. The history of the washing machine goes back to the earliest civilizations, as people tried to find the best ways to wash their clothes, first in streams of running water and then in ever more sophisticated wash-houses and tanks.
The washing machine meets a basic need: to wash clothes and household linen. And it is this daily necessity, with the associated desire to render the washing process less laborious and more hygienic, which has brought about the impressive array of inventions with which we are familiar nowadays.
The first wash-houses
Washing linen by hand is one of the most laborious household chores that exists. Washerwomen used to wash linen with soap by the edge of a stream or river, or else in a fountain or a wash-house. They rubbed the cloth on stones or wooden planks, adding sand if necessary, so as to remove stains and encrusted dirt. Then they would twist it, before hitting it with a wooden beater, to remove as much water as possible.
Over the years, washerwomen improved their techniques by using a variety of natural detergents. The Gauls used birch cinders for better cleaning of material, a process which dates back to 2800 years B.C. The cinders used in the earliest washing powders were replaced much later on by soda crystals.
The Romans, on the other hand, built public laundries (fullonicae in Latin, i.e. fulling mills). Fuller’s grass, imported from Syria, being too expensive, the Romans used fermented human urine to bleach linen, with its high concentration of ammonia. The urine was poured into a tank and the fuller (or fuller woman) took care of fulling the cloth: treading on the sheets and clothes to clean them.
The emperor Vespasian is still famous today for having imposed a tax on urine collection. When his son, Titus, complained to him about this, Vespasian shoved the first receipts from this tax under Titus’ nose and asked him whether they smelt bad. Titus replied that they did not and from this conversation was born the proverb Pecunia non olet : “money has no smell”. Centuries later, the earliest public toilets were named Vespasians.
And as late as 1909, at Elbeuf (76), human urine was still being collected for spinning the wool for army bedsheets.
Amongst the working professions which arose during the nineteenth century, you could also find washers, laundrywomen, pressers and even bleachers. These women were employed in laundries or else worked on their own account.
The role of wash-houses
Before the arrival of wash-houses and other areas set aside for washing, villagers had to draw dirty water which was a source of infection. The proliferation of wash-houses played a major role in terms of public health and hygiene, at a time when cholera, smallpox and typhoid fever used to ravage populations.
State subsidies partly financed the construction of public wash-houses and governments pronouncements were made, even then, regarding the basic principles of hygiene.
Wash-houses were covered areas laid out to facilitate the work of laundrywomen. Such establishments were even a sign of wealth and it was possible to judge the level of prosperity of a village by the number of public wash-houses.
Wash-houses also played an important social role: women from all over the village met there at least once a week (except for very senior ones) and would exchange local news. The wash-house became a “talking house” and it was not unusual to hear the women singing, as a means of lightening their daily chores and passing the time.
Wash-houses gradually disappeared as running water was introduced into homes. As for the washerwomen’s techniques, these inspired the earliest prototype washing machines.