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Black and white photo of the back gardens of some cottages at Buckland, near Yelverton, South Devon, England. A lot of washing is hanging on the lines.

Washboards and mangles; laundry in the 1930s

In a world without washing machines, cleaning clothes in the '30s was a laborious process

Discover England and Wales on the eve of war with the 1939 Register

Before washing clothes was as simple a process as filling the washing machine, adding soap and turning it on, laundry was an arduous, seemingly endless task. Fewer clothes in the wardrobe and a greater number of people employed in physical labour meant that the wash was at least a weekly feature for most families, not least to ensure the Sunday best was clean in time for church.

On a Sunday evening, copper and dolly tubs might be filled with cold water in preparation for wash day. Clothes were sorted and segregated into woollens and cottons and colours and whites. As modern day biological detergents were not available in 1939, exceptionally dirty clothing like overalls would be left to soak overnight with soap flakes added. White shirts and blouses would stand overnight in cold water containing a "blue" whitener.

Black and white photo of a housewife using an electric iron on a checkered dress or apron. The woman is standing in front of cupboards of kitchenware. She is wearing a printed smock apron with little sombreros, cacti, scarves and musical instruments.
Housewife in a 1930s printed smock apron using an electric iron, something to which many didn't have access. Image: Mary Evans/Classic Stock/H. Armstrong Roberts

At the start of wash day the electric copper was turned on, or a coal fire was lit under the brick copper to ensure that the water in the tubs was hot enough. A dolly peg, (an item resembling a four or six-legged wooden stool, out of which a wooden "T" piece protruded), would be used to agitate the items that had been soaking overnight. Rotating the dolly peg in this way was a physically demanding and tiring affair.

The washing process itself involved lifting the items from the cold soak and wringing or mangling each item before transferring them, with more soap flakes, into the copper for boiling. Items that remained soiled, even after an overnight soak, were rubbed on a scrubbing board before being transferred to the copper. A clothes mangle, a hand operated machine consisting of two rotating rollers (which presented a quite serious potential hazard to anyone not paying attention), would be used to squeeze out all the excess water. Clothes would then be hung out to dry on a clothes line, or laid over a clothes-horse next to the kitchen or living room fire.

black and wife picture of a wife running some washing through a mangle in her kitchen.
Wringing out the laundry. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/TOWN & COUNTRY PLANNING

On wash day, most rooms in the home were dull, steamy, and damp. After the steam had cleared, the next part of the process was the ironing.

In the 1930s it was a luxury to have an electric iron, let alone a steam iron. Instead irons were made of cast iron consisting of a flat base with a handle. They were heated by either being placed on the hob at the side of the fire or over a lighted gas-ring.

In the 1930s it was a luxury to have an electric iron, let alone a steam iron.

Once the iron was being used it would soon cool down, so the task had to be completed quickly. Most households would have more than one flat iron in use simultaneously. For steam ironing and starching, water or starch solution was sprayed onto the garment before applying the iron.

Often by the time the washing, drying and ironing process had been fully completed, wash day had come back around again!

Main image: Washing hanging on the line in the back gardens of cottages at Buckland, near Yelverton, South Devon, England. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

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