A Western Wash Day


Among the family treasures in my home is my Great-Grandma Magelby’s battered old copper wash boiler.  It measures 20 inches across by 13 inches high and sits on a three-legged iron stand, which supported it over the fire.  On one side of the lip, where the soapy water was always dumped out, the copper has been corroded away.  It makes the old tub less presentable but even more precious.  When I look at it I imagine her dumping out the wash water time after time, week after week, over the years of her life.

 Washing clothes in those old days wasn’t a job for sissies.  To give you an idea of what was involved, here’s a list of instructions, written by a grandmother to a new bride.  The spelling errors are from the original.


Build fire in backyard to heat kettle of rain water.

Set tubs so smoke wont blow in eyes if wind is pert.

Shave one hole cake of lie soap in boilin water.

Sort things, make 3 piles—1 pile white, 1 pile colored, 1 pile work britches and rags.

To make starch, stir flour in cool water to smooth, then thin down with boiling water.

Take white things, rub dirty spots on board, scrub hard, and boil, then rub colored don’t boil just wrench and starch.

Take things out of kettle with broom stick handle, then wrench and starch.

Hang old rags on fence.

Spread tea towels on grass.

Pore wrench water in flower bed.

Scrub porch with hot soapy water.

Turn tubs upside down.

Go put on clean dress, smooth hair with hair combs.

Brew cup of tea, sit and rock a spell and count your blessings.


Monday was the traditional day for washing.  In many communities there was competition among housewives to see who could get their wash hung first and whose whites were the whitest.  In good weather the washing and drying could be done outdoors.  In the winter the job had to be done in the kitchen, with lines strung wherever they would fit.  Starched clothes were sprinkled and rolled up to await Tuesday—the traditional ironing day.


The above list mentions “lie soap”.  Most people made their own soap in those days out of lye (which came from wood ash) and fat.  The soap was used for bathing as well as laundry.  My mom’s sister, Aunt Bernice, swore by homemade lye soap and made it all her life.  We always used to save our bacon drippings to give her for soap.  Here are a couple of recipes I found.  Let me know if you try them.

 Boiled Soap For cooking outdoors in a kettle.

32 pounds lard

16 quarts soft water

8 cans lye

Boil 2 hours and then add 1 more gallon of water.  Stir and remove fire from kettle and pour into molds.

Cold Soap  

6 lbs melted fat

1 can lye

2 1/2 pints water

 Add lye to water and dissolve. When container which holds the lye water is warm, add the fat and stir until cool. Pour into a cloth lined box, or a box that has been dipped in cold water, and cover. Cut soap into squares when set.

 We have things so easy with our work-saving appliances.   But modern life has its own complications.  Would you have enjoyed living and working in the time of the Old West?  Why or why not?





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38 thoughts on “A Western Wash Day”

  1. Love that, Jeannie! What a fun memory.
    This morning I was thinking about all the women who had babies and toddlers in diapers–what a job that must have been!

  2. Good Morning, Elizabeth, I would love to live in the time of the Old West but doing the laundry or trying to cook from scratch, um, no. I would rather be roping and riding than washing and cooking.

    Even now with all that we have, I still have a hard time getting a meal together (on time) and as for the laundry, I’m trying to get my 12 yr.old son to invent a clothes folding machine (He’s made all these interesting gadgets to help my husband in their workshop-now it’s my turn for some help.)

    Have a great day and thanks for the post. What wonderful family history you have to share.

  3. Thank you, Za. Maybe you could be a rich rancher and hire people to do the washing and cooking so you could rope and ride to your heart’s content.
    Your son sounds amazing. Wish he could invent a brain implant to make me write faster–or a machine that would hold my fingers on the keyboard until I’d done 5 pages.

  4. Elizabeth, I loved this information. Wow! That list of instructions–I was right there, I tell ya.

    Would I have loved working and living in the Old West? Modern conveniences aside–yes, you betcha. I think life is way too hectic, and we all need to “Brew cup of tea, sit and rock a spell and count your blessings” more often!!!

    We’d all be happier and more relaxed for it.

    Great blog, Elizabeth!

  5. wow..that was so cool to read Elizabeth! I totally agree that washing clothes back then was not for a sissy! I know I could not do it now like that for sure!

  6. Thanks, Pam and Melissa. I remember growing up my mom had one of those old agitator tub washers with a wringer. She didn’t have to boil and scrub but it still took most of her Saturday to do the family wash–the rest of the week she taught school!

  7. My mom had a washer with a wringer, too. Would I have wanted to live back then? No way. I might have ended up a laundress – or worse yet – some farmer’s wife with a pack of rambunctious kids to herd and cows to milk.

    I LURV my Maytag appliances, my shower, my coffee maker and my iced tea machine. You may call me spoiled. I won’t mind a bit.

  8. LOL, Cheryl. I would have enjoyed living in the Old West (think how beautiful the wilderness must have been) but only if I was rich enough to have hired help. And what would be the odds of that??

  9. Hmmmm…in my imagination I live in the Old West, but oh, I do love my automatic washer and dryer LOL. My gramma had a crippled finger after catching it in a wringer as a child…

    I was very little when my dad won a world series pool and bought mom her first automatic dryer. Oh, she felt like a queen. It was pink!

    Question: how did they figure out LARD makes soap?

    Very interesting post today,Elizabeth!

  10. Ouch. It hurts me to think of your poor gramma’s finger, Tanya.
    Your question–hmmm. I do know that soapmaking has been around for a very long time, a few hundred years at least. In the beginning it may have been a lucky accident, like somebody finding a lump of grease that had been spilled in ashes. Does anybody have a better answer?

  11. Hi Elizabeth – I don’t have a problem with washing and chores women did back then. I think it would be cool to live in the old west. Maybe for a day or two. But, I NEED indoor plumbing. I’m one who won’t use an outhouse at all. I’m not a good camper. So, the chores don’t bother me at all, it’s the lack of um, toilet necessities that gets me every time. Don’t you wonder what those women would say if they saw our new fangled washers and dryers? Think they would have liked to live in our times?

  12. Oh and I forgot to say, GREAT INFO! I really enjoyed reading about Wash Day. For me, the regiment of HAVING to do something on a certain day would drive me crazy. I don’t have wash days here. Just when it’s absolutely necessary!!

  13. I love that recipe. LOL did it really include smooth hair? Funny. Just a charming look at another time.

    As for this: My mom’s sister, Aunt Bernice, swore by homemade lye soap and made it all her life.

    I think if I had to make my own soap and then scrub with lye, I’d swear too! 🙂

  14. Elizabeth, what an interesting look at the past! I’m sure wash day was an all-day affair with little time for anything else other than cooking. There was always cooking to do no matter what.

    Loved the recipes and the instructions for washing clothes. Wonder how many brides were given those when they married? I shudder to think.

    I’ve often wished I could bring someone from those days to this century and see what they thought of our technology and advancement. Their reactions would be really neat. I don’t know how I’d possibly survive without my microwave and washer and dryer! I shudder to think what would happen if I lost them. I guess I’d manage to survive, but it wouldn’t be a piece of cake by any stretch of the imagination.

    Very neat, interesting post!

  15. Thanks for your comments, Charlene, Mary and Linda. And I think the fat was supposed to neutralize the lye or something, Mary. I do remember my aunt’s big can of lye. We kids were forbidden to touch it because it was so caustic and dangerous. There’s an obscure old song called “Grandma’s Lye Soap.” I only remember snatches of it. Anyone??
    And I’m wondering what your visitor from the past would think of our crazy, hectic lifestyles, Linda. She might just want to go back to the 1800s and deal with her washing.

  16. Good Morning!

    Believe it or not, I remember my Mother doing wash day — we had an old wringer washer and she hung out the clothes on the line. I also remember as a very young child loving to play in the clothes that were drying. We were a little behind the times, I must admit, and not as modern as those around us, but I remember this day very much and when I was very young, maybe 4 years old or so, loving to play with the drying clothes. I kinda miss seeing those clothes drying nowadays — the smell of the clothes and the freshness of it can’t be described properly in this day and age of heavy perfumes instead of the oxygen of the outdoors gently scenting the clothes. Great post.

  17. Oh, I know what you mean, Karen. Those fresh sheets smelled so good. Some of the products on sale now advertise “outdoor freshness” but it’s nothing like the real thing.
    At least the towels are softer in the dryer.

  18. Well, Mom usually washed clothes while we were in school but once in awhile we’d see her still at it and we’d cringe. It’s funny that I don’t think of all the hard work that went into the process…but I do remember getting my blouses back with the buttons cut in half from going through the wringer the wrong way.

    I also remember her coming into the house after putting the clothes on the line. Her hands would be red and stiff. She’d always make a clawing motion at us and we’d squeal and run away b/c if we stayed, her cold hands would be down our backs! Later on, she’d bring the clothes in and I can still see our pants ‘standing’ in the kitchen b/c they’d frozen out there. And this was in the 1970’s!

  19. Your mom sounds like a fun lady, Anita. I can just see those hard working hands going after you. My mother had a rack and hangers in the house for most of the clothes, but the sheets and towels went outside. I remember them frozen stiff.
    Does anybody remeber the little clothes sprinkler nozzles that you stuck in the mouth of a glass coke bottle, to sprinkle the clothes for ironing?

  20. Yes! But Mom used a ketchup bottle. Funny, now that you mention it…I thought she was the only one who did that.

    It was also where I learned about mildew since Mom ‘lost’ the bag one time and the clothes were a mite spotted when she found it. 🙂

  21. We had an electric wringer washer when I was a kid. My mom managed to make us all terrified of it. She kept saying the wringer would catch our hair or our clothes and suck us through and crush us to death.
    (well, who knows what the poor misquoted woman really said, but that was what I expected to happen)

    My mother in law boiled water, shaved in soap and washed, stirring with a long handled thing. Just like that recipe.

  22. I lived next door to an elderly lady, from Oklahoma, who made her own soap.
    She would bulld a fire in her driveway(we lived in the country), put her witches cauldron(her words) over it and boil her soap.

  23. Smiling over the mildew story, Anita. And Mary, my mom actually did get her hand pulled into the wringer once. Nothing broken but it was pretty scary for a few seconds, and her hand was squished flat.
    Nice to know my aunt wasn’t the only one who made her own soap, Estella. Love the idea of the witch’s cauldron in the driveway.

  24. soo..guess what Ive been doing today??LOL… washing clothes! Everytime Id go into my little laundry room today to swap out loads, I would of this post today Elizabeth…and boy was I ever thankful everytime that I have my washer and dryer!

    Charlene: I dont mind camping now with an outhouse or the like, BUT…I really cant imagine having to run out the outhouse every time I had to go!!!

    on a side note::::
    Has anyone here ever done a post about hygiene back then? Like what women used for their necessicities each month…I swear Im not really morbid or anything, but..I really can’t imagine living life without our modern conveniences that are specifically made to help a woman out!!! Seriously…think about all the times you’ve reached for something specifically for a woman in your life…and think about how they didnt have stuff like we do now! mind boggling..LOL

  25. Elizabeth, I LOVE reading about those “olden days” but I can’t imagine living them–I’m SO lazy, and life was so much more work then because you had to do everything by hand! I probably would have starved to death wearing filthy clothes ;p Thanks for the fun post today!

  26. That would make an interesting blog, Melissa. My mom told me that she once asked her grandmother (the one who owned the wash boiler) what women used to do about such things. The answer she got was that they didn’t usually have to bother with it. Most of the time they were either pregnant or nursing (!!!)
    You can take that answer for what it’s worth.

  27. I think the work was very hard then, but think how slow life seemed and how much closer the family was then.

    My Grandmother only had a wringer washer her whole life, she said the clothes got cleaner.
    I ran my arm through it one time, now that really hurt.

    I would the Grandma Lye Soap Lyrics
    Do you remember Grandma’s Lye Soap,
    Good for everything in the home,
    And the secret was in the scrubbing,
    It wouldn’t suds, and wouldn’t foam,

    Oh, let us sing right out (sing out!)
    For Grandma’s Lye Soap,
    Sing it out, all over the place!
    For pots and pans, and dirty dishes,
    And for your hands,
    And for your face!

    Little Therman, and Brother Herman,
    Had an aversion to washing their ears…
    Grandma scrubbed them with her lye soap,
    And they haven’t heard a word in years!

    Oh, let us sing right out (sing out!)
    For Grandma’s Lye Soap,
    Sing it out, all over the place!
    For pots and pans, and dirty dishes,
    And for your hands,
    And for your face!

    Mrs. O’Malley, out in the valley,
    Suffered from ulcers, I understand,
    She swallowed a cake of Grandma’s Lye Soap,
    Has the cleanest ulcers in the land!

    Oh, let us sing right out (sing out!)
    For Grandma’s Lye Soap,
    Sing it out, all over the place!
    For pots and pans, and dirty dishes,
    And for your hands,
    And for your face!

    Alternate Verse:

    Mrs. O’Malley
    Down in the valley
    had a hound, I understand.
    It swallowed a cake
    Of Grandma’s lye soap.
    Now it’s the cleanest hound in all the land

    Oh, let us sing right out (sing out!)
    For Grandma’s Lye Soap,
    Sing it out, all over the place!
    For pots and pans, and dirty dishes,
    And for your hands,
    And for your face!

  28. Live and work in those days! No way! Been there,
    done that! Don’t want to do that again!!

    We moved to the “country” when I was about 4 y/o.
    No washers or dryers in those days, it was the
    wash tub, lye soap (which my grandmother made),
    paddle(for stirring the white clothes over the fire), and the scrub board for us. Under Mother’s
    and Abuelita’s (little grandmother) guidance I
    got to experience all the stages of the process.
    At a later time, we got a washing machine (don’t
    remember the brand) with a wringer, which saved
    strain on our hands. When I was in junior high
    school, we got an Easy Spin Dryer, which had a
    spin-dry tub. Through all these years, the clothes had to be hung on clothes lines with
    wooden pins for drying!

    Give up my washer and dryer and other modern
    conveniences! No way, Jose!!

    Pat Cochran

  29. Sherry! I can’t believe you remember that whole silly old song! I’m going to save it so I’ll never forget it again.

    And your message says it all Pat. You’ve been there, done that, and wouldn’t go back!

    Thanks for making me smile!

  30. Will do that, Sherry, especially since I can’t remember the music either (I think I only heard it sung by a kid who couldn’t carry a tune).
    Thanks so much for looking it up.

  31. My mom held on to her old ringer washer for the longest time and even to this day she hardly ever uses her dryer – rather hang them up so as not to waste the electricity lol. I hate cleaning so I wouldn’t have done well in the old days but I do like how families were together.

  32. Hey, Jeanne, your mom is right with the times, saving energy. And the closeness of families was one of the best things about the past, wasn’t it. It seems like families today get pulled in so many directions…
    Thanks for your comments, all of you. What a fun day we’ve had!

  33. I must be older than all of you as I remember helping heat the rain water on the wood stove in my grandmother’s washouse so that we could shave some soap and wash the laundry. We had to crank the wringer by hand and the washer motion was made by stepping on a peddle that agitated the laundry. When I married, I did laundry at my mother-in-laws with the lye soap until we discovered the allergy I had to the soap. The rash I developed and the wood heatings stove we had are another story.

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