Life On Soap Suds Row


The frontier army post must’ve been a busy place with soldiers coming and going, marching and saluting. But it wasn’t only men who lived on the post. There were officers’ wives and children. And a known fact is that up until 1878 the army hired laundresses, or washerwomen as some called them.

They traveled with the soldiers in an official capacity and had free access to the army doctors and surgeons. In fact, they were the only women the army recognized and supported.

To get hired, a laundress had to pass several hurdles. They had to have a certificate of good character from headquarters before they could assume duty and they had to be free of disease.

Once they passed, these women were issued a tent, bedding straw, a hatchet, a large wash tub and two mess pans. Each day they received a ration of meat, bread and whiskey. The whiskey might sound odd but it was issued to remove stains. *wink, wink*  I’m betting more than a few drank it after a hard day of scrubbing clothes over a fire. It was backbreaking work.

Each company was issued three or four laundresses. That averaged one for every 15-17 men. That’s a lot of clothes for one person to wash.

The women were lodged together on what was called Soap Suds Row. Their tents were often tattered and in disrepair. If a laundress married a soldier, which happened pretty frequently, he lived with her here.

A laundress’s work was extremely hard. She rose before dawn and chopped wood and hauled water. She often heated as much as 50 gallons of water a day in several tubs for soaking, scrubbing, and rinsing. Boiling was the final process (to kill lice, ticks, and fleas) before being hung up to dry.

Lye soap was the only kind available to them and that plus the hot water made their hands crack and bleed. She used a rub board to scrub the clothes on and that too was unkind to hands.

If a soldier wanted his clothes ironed that cost extra. Laundresses also did mending, sewed on buttons, and applied bluing to the final rinse to offset the yellowish tinge that light-colored clothing acquired from repeated washings.

But, laundresses were paid well. An average soldier paid $1 to $4 a month, depending on his rank. So, while an average soldier might draw $13 a month, a hard-working laundress could make up to $40 or over. Not bad. At least it was better than other things. And they didn’t have to be worried that the soldier wouldn’t pay them because the army deducted it from the men’s pay before they even got it.

While some were soundly criticized for drunkenness and loose morals, the majority were honest, hard-working, kindhearted women who made a living doing a difficult job.

It’s strange that in light of the crucial service these women provided they were considered at the bottom of the social ladder. Maybe that was due in part to the fact that few could read or write.

I’d like to read some accounts of their lives but little is known. More’s the pity. Diaries and journals recording their experiences would’ve made for interesting reading.

When I was a little girl, my mother who was uneducated took in washing and ironing to help make ends meet. I watched her slave, on her feet all day, to make a few dollars. I can’t remember what she charged to wash the clothes, but I remember she got paid 50 cents a dozen to iron them. I still remember the smell of that starch and the freshly pressed clothes hanging all over the house.

Do you have recollections of someone you know doing this?

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

25 thoughts on “Life On Soap Suds Row”

  1. It must have been an awful stinky job… between the soap & the fact that the men didn’t bathe frequently, wore longjohns for months at a time.. I’m certain that the real truth is so far from what is portrayed on tv or the movies…. A whole lot of dirt and sweat was going on!

  2. Hi CateS……..yes, I’m sure washing for those soldiers was not very pleasant. And keep in mind that the laundresses also washed their uniforms. Putting the smelly aspect behind, I can’t imagine how difficult it was and how hard on the hands to scrub those heavy woolen uniforms. My source said that the army issued uniforms several sizes too big because they always shrunk in the wash.

    Have a great day!

  3. Great blog, Linda. I never thought much about how the soldiers got their clothes clean. Lots of great story material here.
    I didn’t know anyone who washed for a living but I remember my mom, who was a teacher, spent her Saturdays doing our laundry in an old Maytag wringer washer. It took her all day. When I got old enough I helped with the ironing. Boy do we have it easy these days!
    Hoping you’re safe from the tornadoes.

  4. Hi Elizabeth…….I, too, used to help my mother wash our clothes on a wringer washer. One time I got my hand caught in the wringer and my mom had to get it out. Sure did hurt. After that I was lots more careful. But, I used to think it was FUN doing the laundry. I also thought it was fun washing dishes too until I had to do it as part of my chores. Now I watch my grandkids and shake my head, knowing the fun chores they’re doing will not be fun one day. Yes, we really have it easy these days no question about it. Our mothers and grandmothers worked themselves to death.

    Yes, I was safe from the tornadoes, bless you for asking.

  5. Hi Linda, what a fascinating topic! I can’t imagine washing clothes for 15 or more men under such trying conditions. I think I’ll go and hug my washing machine.

    Stay safe!

  6. I remember the wringer washers, too, Linda. As the oldest of 6, I often helped my mom with the laundry. I usually did the ironing. I remember one time when I was ironing my brother’s shirt, this odd smell sizzled out when I did the pocket. He had left a worm in the pocket and it was still there after being washed. I remember putting whites out on the grass. Old wives’ tale or whatever that the chlorine in the grass helped brighten the whites. Have no idea how that was supposed to work, but the clothes were nice and bright.

    I used a washboard and wash tub for three years. I was in the Peace Corps and there were no laundromats or washing machines in the homes. I did send most of my stuff out to a laundress who beat them on a rock and ironed them. I soon discovered that sending underwire bras was not a good idea. The wires would come back in all sorts of curious shapes. I kept my “unmentionables” and a few other things and did them myself. It really isn’t all that bad. I wouldn’t want to fight really dirty jeans on a washboard, but most other stuff isn’t too bad.

    I have been to reenactments and living history days at historic sites and often there is a station set up demonstrating making soap and doing laundry.

    Thanks for the interesting post. Don’t think I would have applied for the job unless there really wasn’t an option. I was just wondering, could a widow with young children be hired for the job? That would be an interesting story line for an HEA.

  7. Hi Margaret……I can really understand why the army issued the women a daily ration of whiskey. They probably had to drink in order to get the courage to tackle those mounds and mounds of dirty clothes. And heaven forbid, if they missed a day because they were ill, they’d never get caught up. What a life. But I suppose for a lot of women this was a better option than prostitution. There weren’t that many options available to them.

  8. Hi Patricia B……..Seems you know firsthand what it must’ve been like. Yes, jeans would be hard to wash on a rub board. And what about the long dresses and petticoats the women wore? Lord have mercy! I never heard the thing about spreading freshly washed whites on the grass to dry. Looks to me that they’d gotten grass stains on them, but what do I know. I just remember hanging clothes on a clothesline. In fact, I washed my son’s cloth diapers (before there were Pampers) and hung them on the line. I also recall getting stung by wasps that got in the clothes as they dried. But sun-dried clothes really smelled wonderful.

    Glad you stopped by to chat and reminiscence.

  9. Fantastic information, Linda. I had no idea! I think one of the handicaps in the 1800s was illiteracy. When my five-year old grandson read me a book the other day, I realized reading is a right, not a privilege.

    I didn’t know any washerwomen per se, but I remember when I was really teensie, my mom had a wringer-washer. My dad won a World Series pool at work and bought her an automatic washer. History had been made! It was pink, and she was so proud of it. I also remember how excited she was when she got permanent-press bed sheets.

    My gramma as a kid did catch her finger in a wringer and it and its nail were a bit deformed.

    Ah, I love my washer and drier.

    Thanks, Linda! xoxox

  10. Wow, that’s just weird and fascinating. I had no idea they had women on army bases working. I’ve heard of the wifes and I suppose children came with that….eventually. 🙂
    Why women laundresses but not cooks?
    I remember my mother instilling us with fear of the wringer washer. She wanted us to be scared of that thing and it worked!
    My mother in law lived as a young wife in a house with no electricity. She had to wash twice a week by heating water over a wood burning stove. And she did NOT get the summer off. She talked about baking bread, too. There was no escape. That stove had to be lit despite the heat. Her first three sons have October birthdays, too. So in July and August she’s PREGNANT and scrubbing with a hot stove heating water.

  11. Actually thats how I help make ends meet while going to Nursing School,,I starch ironed uniforms for the other students,I got a Dollar a dress or outfit,,,our instructer insisted on non wrinkled,,so I didnt mind ironing an the other girls hated it an had the money to pay me so that was my extra job,ironing ,,,,,,

  12. I really enjoyed your blog.. That’s one chore that we still do nearly everyday but with more modern machines. Sometimes I think that is the only chore I am good at! I taught my daughter to hang bluejeans outside to make them stiff and she has mentioned her husband finding spiders in the jeans..I remember my grandmother using bluine..I thought that was a strange word to make clothes white.

  13. It’s hard to imagine that these women could keep this up for more than a year or two. I would think they would just wear out. It makes me exhausted just thinking of the pioneer women who did laundry this way once a week, but do do it day after day after day? That would be torture. And their poor hands. I just wash the dishes and mine dry out.

  14. Hi Tanya…….bet your mom was really proud of that pink automatic washer. And we just take washers and dryers for granted. We can throw in a load of clothes at midnight if we want to and they’ll be ready to throw in the dryer the next morning. Such luxury. And we still gripe about having to do laundry. Our grandmothers would think we’re so spoiled. The truth is, we are.

  15. Hi Mary……..I think the army needed a few jobs for men to do so they assigned them to KP duty. But I don’t think even the army could get men to wash clothes. LOL There are just some things a man refuses to do. Plus their brains aren’t wired to figure out soap and rub boards and bluing.

    Your mother-in-law must’ve been of hearty stock. Back then you had to be or else. I have a feeling you share lots in common with your mil.

  16. Hi Vickie……..that’s amazing. You must’ve been very good at it. I hate ironing. If I mess up and buy something that’s not permanent press it goes for months after washing before I finally break down and iron it. It’s just a chore I hate doing. But I’d have hated washing clothes on a rub board too. That’s lots of work.

  17. Hi Tretha………I always smile when I see your comments. I remember how intimidated you were last year about posting a comment. Now, it’s like you’ve been doing it forever. I remember hanging jeans on a clothesline and how stiff it made them. My mom had something she called “pants stretchers.” Don’t know if that was their name or if she made it up. They were made of metal and you inserted one in each leg of the jeans. They keep the denim tight so that the pants didn’t have to be ironed. I don’t think we ever found any spiders in our clothes but we sure did wasps.

    I remember hearing my mom talk about bluing but I never saw her using any. Yes, isn’t that funny that you put blue stuff in the water to make clothes white! Doesn’t make much sense.

  18. Hi Karen……..I shudder to think what those women’s poor hands looked like. And they did it day after day. No wonder the army issued them whiskey. LOL Yes, I think doing the laundry back in those days had to be such a difficult chore and a thankless task on top of everything.

  19. Hi Estella………We do what we have to I guess. You probably didn’t have much choice. But, my goodness you’d have had to iron a lot to make anything at 10 cents an item. And I really can’t imagine ironing a man’s shirt for 10 cents. Are you sure you weren’t a pioneer woman?

  20. Linda, what a fascinating blog. I really enjoyed it. I’d read about the wash women but certainly didn’t know much about them. My mother-in-law raised five boys, plus had a husband and her father lived with them. My father-in-law was a lab tech and it took a lot to feed and clothe eight people, so she took in laundry for extra income. Even after the boys were gone, Bob and I were married, she continued to iron because she had so many people she couldn’t say no to! I can’t imagine using a washboard! I’m like everyone else, liquor would be a mandatory issued supply. Thanks for telling us about something that many of us never thought about. Hugs, P

  21. Gotta love today’s technology. My pink wringer washer, about 50 years old, sits in our basement. Sure it still works. Diapers and baby clothers were an almost daily chore when our first son was born so I cannot imagaine doing laundry in a washtub for 15 to 20 men.

    My grandmother had an old gas powered wringer machine and used rainwater to do the laundry. The old wash house was my favorite place to play when I stayed there because we even got to cook our mudpies in the oven of the old woodcookstove she used to heat her water!

  22. Really interesting article today. I remember growing up on the ranch and my grandmother used a lot of kitchen items that were on hand for various remedies. Like when my sister and I would be stung by a bee or an ant she would put bluing on it. We went around with dots of bluing on our arms and feet and it was worn as a badge of courage. (My wild imagination at work at an early age) She would also use baking soda for rashes caused by some of the weeds we ran through. What fun!

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