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.
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.
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.
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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