An army may travel on its stomach, but soldiers also appreciate clean underwear. In honor of Veteran’s Day, I’m saluting the only women recognized by the US Army during the 19th century—the military laundresses.
Laundry was an arduous task before the advent of the washing machine. After sorting the clothing, stains were treated with chalk, clay or lye, depending on the kind of stain. Clothes were soaked, sometimes for days, then washed, scrubbed on a scrub board, rinsed and then boiled to kill lice and take out the last of the harsh soap. After that, the clothes were rinsed and hung to dry, then ironed with heavy flat irons. Imagine a hundred soldiers tending to their laundry in a camp environment on top of their other duties. Laundresses were essential, so in March of 1802, the “Act Fixing the Military Peace Establishment in the United States” recognized women retainers as military personnel.
According to the Act, up to four women were allowed to accompany a company of 100 men, and each woman would receive one ration of
meat, bread and whiskey a day. (The ratio later changed to one laundress per 19 ½ men.) In addition to their food ration, they were also allowed bedding straw, fuel and the services of the surgeon. If the laundress was married, she shared quarters with her soldier husband. If not, she shared housing with the other laundresses, as well as a hatchet, a camp kettle and two mess pans. Housing consisted of tents when on the move and actual quarters when serving at post, although at some posts, the laundress quarters, located on suds row, were the most cramped and squalid.
When payday rolled around, the soldiers’ debts to the laundresses were paid before their debts to the sutlers, or merchants. The amount the laundresses were paid was set by the camp administrators. In 1851 at For Crawford, the laundresses received 50 cents for two shirts, two pair of underwear and two pairs of socks. In Fort Boise in 1866, enlisted men paid $2.00 a month and officers paid $5.00, since their uniforms might require starch or bluing. Soap was a rare commodity, so the price shifted according to who supplied the soap. In addition to doing laundry, laundresses served in other capacities, cooking, cleaning and acting as midwives. Many baked and mended for extra money.
Soldiers were free to do their own laundry if they did not wish to hire a laundress. Some soldiers, particularly those who were convalescing from injury or illness, made extra money doing laundry for their fellow soldiers.
Interestingly, the wives of officers were not recognized as essential company personnel and could be banned from the post by the commanding officer. Not so the laundresses. They traveled with the Army, except in combat situations. Once combat was over, the laundresses once again joined the company. As recognized retainers, the laundresses were subject to Army regulations and there are records of laundresses being brought before military courts.
Where did the laundresses come from? They were often the wives of senior enlisted men and their pay helped to support the family. Widows or mothers of soldiers also became laundresses. The captain of the company hired the laundresses, who were required to have a letter of recommendation or a certificate of good character. No woman of bad character was allowed to follow the Army. However, that didn’t mean these women were refined. Most were illiterate, so there are no written journals or diaries of laundresses. Most information about the laundresses comes from soldiers’ letters and military records.
In 1875, the Army started looking at laundresses from an economic point of view and realized that rations, quarters and fuel used by laundresses came to almost $200,000. In 1883, the Army stopped issuing rations to laundresses, although laundresses married to soldiers were allowed to stay with the company until the husband’s enlistment was up.
There are a lot of fascinating stories and lore about individual laundresses, and I really enjoyed reading about these tough women who provided such an essential service to our armed forces over a century ago.