Can you imagine Life Without Laundry…?
We have five people in our home: my husband and me, and my three children. If you add it up, that’s a lot of laundry. On most days, I find it rewarding to pull it warm, fresh and clean from the dryer, fold it, and deliver it in neat piles to their beds.
But it got me thinking on how we have addressed the process of laundry that has changed over the last few centuries. Where does dirt come from? And, how much dirt does the average laundry load contain?
In a simple model, “dirt” can be divided into two categories: Stains: Localized, highly visible Soil: Dispersed, less noticeable.
Closer investigation of the dispersed soil found on laundry has surprising results.
First, there is a lot of hidden soil in our everyday clothes. There are four main sources of such hidden soil, namely:
1. Soil generated by our bodies and the bacteria that live on human skin like skin flakes
2. Soil derived from personal care products such as lotions, creams, deodorants, make-up and hair sprays
3. Soil from our environment, such as from air pollution
4.Textile finishes (softeners, optical brighteners, dye fixatives) and laundry detergent residuals (perfumes, fabric softeners, etc.)
Soil (or dirt) is generated by various sources, but the largest percentage comes from our bodies. More than 60% of laundry generated at home has been in direct contact with bodies. Each day a person sheds more than a billion skin flakes, generates about a litre of sweat and produces tens of grams of “sebum,” a mixture of triglycerides , fatty acids, wax esters and cholesterol.
The human skin microflora (up to 1.5 million bacteria live on 1cm2) feed on this organic soil, producing additional and often highly odoriferous compounds. An average wash load contains 40 grams of soil, or 3 large spoonfuls. A heavily soiled wash load may contain over 120 grams of soil.
Removing all of this soil during a single wash cycle continues to be a challenge to detergent manufacturers and the laundry appliance industry. Dirt extracted from a typical laundry load is complex. It is composed of proteins, starches, carbohydrates, lipids, fatty acids, inorganic salts, clays, pigments and more.
The large number of chemically distinct compounds makes soil removal a tough challenge and doing the laundry a chore.
I remember the first time I did laundry as a new mom. It was a reality check, I had a child to care for—the little socks and sleepers proved it was so.
To me, doing the laundry brings my care for others into reality.
No doubt about it, doing laundry is one of the oldest domestic tasks known to man. Although the laundry process differs between cultures and has varied over time, the basic human need has not changed: to remove dirt and get clothes clean.
Doing the washing is a staple household duty, and has been probably ever since we began to wear clothes. And where we still value the all around greatness of having clean clothes, we often forget that at one time, doing the laundry was a bit more labor-intensive than it is in this age of energy-efficient washers and dryers.
Once upon a time a metal washboard and bar of hard soap with a tub of hot water was a new-fangled way of tackling laundry, though today it’s a common picture of “old-fashioned” laundering.
Many people rate the smell of clean laundry as their favorite scent. People all over the globe share a common urge: to keep clean and to wash the clothing that covers their bodies. In fact, this basic instinct has saved lives. Exodus tells us that the daughter of Egypt’s pharaoh came down to the river Nile to bathe when she found Moses in his little basket.
And the Odyssey recounts the story of the Phaeakian princess Nausikaa and her handmaidens, who went to the banks at the mouth of a river to wash their clothes and found Odysseus, shipwrecked and naked.
During the great crusades and wars of Europe, the warriors were followed by large groups of women who, among other things, washed their clothes.
The 12th-century Norman poet Ambroise attributes the major number of the deaths during the third crusade (1189-1192) to the fact that the women had been sent home. With nobody to do the laundry, contagious diseases spread in the dirty clothes.
For centuries, people on sea voyages washed their clothes by placing the dirty laundry in a strong cloth bag, and tossing it overboard, letting the ship drag the bag for hours. The principle was sound: forcing water through clothes to remove dirt. Catharine Beecher, an early advocate of bringing order and dignity to housework, called laundry “the American housekeeper’s hardest problem”.
Women from all classes tried to find ways to get relief from doing laundry. Some hired washerwomen and others used commercial laundries. Eventually mechanical aids lightened the load.
“In the early days, without running water, gas, or electricity even the most simplified hand-laundry used staggering amounts of time and labor. One wash, one boiling and one rinse used about fifty gallons of water—or four hundred pounds—which had to be moved from pump or well or faucet to stove and tub, in buckets and wash boilers that might weigh as much as forty or fifty pounds.
Rubbing, wringing, and lifting water-laden clothes and linens, including large articles like sheets, tablecloths, and men’s heavy work clothes, wearied women’s arms and wrists and exposed them to caustic substances.
They lugged weighty tubs and baskets full of wet laundry outside, picked up an article, hung it on the line, and returned to take it all down; they ironed by heating several irons on the stove and alternating them as they cooled, never straying far from the hot stove.”
The marvelous way of how we got from the rock to the big white box has gone almost unnoticed.
However, on International Women’s Day, the Vatican’s newspaper observed: “Some say the pill, some say abortion rights and some the right to work outside the home. Some, however, dare to go further: the washing machine.”
The Vatican newspaper says that perhaps the washing machine did more to liberate women in the 20th century than the pill or the right to work. What do you think?
The debate is still open.
Today, people all over the world do laundry as they have for centuries, washing clothes in a river or a lake. Families in developed countries are more likely to be owners of washing machines that do the entire job for them in about an hour.
When Mark Twain stumbled into India late last century, he looked around a bit and concluded, in his memoir “Following the Equator,” that Indians were people who break rocks with their clothes.
Today, from India’s southern tip to the foothills of the Himalayas, there are still men and women virtually everywhere who beat clothing against rocks, driving dirt from saris and kurta pajamas by brute force. They are India’s dhobis, its washermen and women, most of whom are untouchable outcastes who have been despised and shunned by other Indians, but whose services have been as central to Indian life as those of its farmers, politicians and Brahman priests.
But modernity is intruding on tradition, and for the first time, India’s dhobis see their livelihood, and their very existence, threatened. The villain creeping relentlessly into middle class homes is the automatic washing machine. Machines Clean Faster.
The last time I did a laundry for one, was in the apartment where I lived before I got married. Since then I have done thousands of loads for two, then for three, then for four and now five.
I love the fact that there is a beginning (dirty clothes on the floor of the garage) a middle (sorted and washed, dried) and an end (folding and putting away).
Washed and folded clothes are tangible signs of the growth of my kids. There has been a wistful sense of time passing through the laundering of my family’s clothing. And, I expect that it should continue as Life moves forward.
The eulogy to a domestic convenience which most women in developed countries now take for granted quoted the words of the late American feminist, Betty Friedan, who in 1963 described “the sublime mystique to being able to change the bed sheets twice a week instead of once”.
While early models were expensive and unreliable, technology had improved to the point that there is now “the image of the super woman, smiling, made-up and radiant among the appliances of her house,” wrote the Vatican newspaper.
The machines may not be the equivalent of diamond earrings or fancy dinners on Mother’s Day, but the automatic washing machine – one that washes, rinses and extracts water from clothes in one simple process – is the appliance many mothers appreciate the most.
At the end of World War II, only 37 percent of the buildings in Paris had running water. Remarkably, this figure would have inspired envy in rural France, where only 18 percent of houses had running water. Similarly, a mere 5 percent of France’s homes had a private, indoor bathroom, a luxury to be found in 17 percent of Parisian homes.
No one suffered the inconveniences of this more than the women who cleaned those homes.
Washing clothes required a full day’s labor, as women fetched water from a tap in the courtyard or the street, boiled and scrubbed the clothes, exchanged dirty for clean water, and then rinsed and wrung out their laundry.
It was no surprise, then, that French women’s magazines routinely depicted the pleasures of life in the United States, where domestic appliances appeared to have made housework obsolete. In 1947, an article called “24 Hours with Barbara and Teddy in Paris (Texas)” provided Frenchwomen with a detailed peek at the joys of life in America.
Barbara casually tosses her laundry in the washer and scampers off to shop and meet her friends for ice cream. When she returns home at 5:00 PM to prepare dinner, Teddy tells her that they will be attending the opera that evening.
Clearly, “there is no place where the position of women is more enviable than the United States.” There, “liberated from her domestic cares by her mechanical servants, she is free to justify her superiority in culture and refinement.”
Leaving aside the dubiousness of an evening at the opera as standard fare in 1940s Texas, the image of a home filled with “mechanical servants” was attractive to French women.
But having just emerged from years of depression and war and now facing a continuing housing shortage and inflation, most French citizens found the prices of home appliances beyond their reach. depicted the pleasures of life in the United States.
Though historians have repeatedly shown that home appliances don’t actually reduce the time spent in housework, since they’re almost always accompanied by a rise in standards, an appliance like the washing machine could significantly change the character of that labor.
But even though, men are said to be more in touch with their feminine side than ever before and while they might participate in lengthy grooming regimes it seems laundry remains woman’s work as a survey has revealed that a fifth of British men don’t know how to use their washing machine.
It may be gratifying for women to see their husbands loading the dishwasher or folding laundry, but is it sexy? Yes, according to many media stories. “Men: Want More Sex? Do the Laundry” was headline of a 2009 report from CBS News.
According to Naomi Wolf, “research has shown that the most erotic thing a man can do for a woman is the dishes.” Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, agrees. “Nothing is sexier” she says, than a man who wants to do his share of the housework. “It may be counterintuitive,” writes Sandberg, “but the best way for a man to make a pass at his wife is to do the dishes.” Sandberg urges readers to check out a “fabulous little book” called Porn for Women produced by the Cambridge Women’s Pornography Cooperative. It is full of images of hunky guys vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning the kitty litter.
But now a new study in the American Sociological Review casts doubt on the truth of this happy feminist idyll. Men routinely doing “female” chores appear to have less—not more—sex.
Where did the myth originate about husbands who do laundry getting more sex ?The authors explain that the misleading media accounts are based on research that failed to take into account how couples divide household chores. While it may be true that men helping around the house increases sexual frequency—how men help makes a difference.
What’s a couple to do? This new article is part of the solution. It is a helpful reminder that the sexes are not interchangeable. Couples need to know this. The authors don’t say so, but men and women, taken as a group, don’t merely find conventional sex roles exciting—many seem to like those traditional roles as well. Cheryl Mendelson, author of Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, has a Ph.D. in philosophy and a J.D from Harvard Law, but she confesses to leading a “secret life” as an old-fashioned “housewife.” She adds that the pleasure and comfort of homemaking is “central to my character.” Few men view homemaking as central to their character—but millions of women do. Males are not the market for Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, orMarthaStewart.com.
Some will read these generalizations and cry, “Sexism!” or “Essentialism!” So let’s be clear about what these group comparisons mean. I am talking about statistical averages, not absolutes. Clearly, not all men and women embody the stereotypes of their sex. Though they are not typical, there are women who dislike homemaking and would far prefer reading Popular Mechanics over Traditional Home; and there are men who enjoy many aspects of homemaking.
No doubt, there are women for whom nothing is sexier than the sight of their husbands doing the dishes. But, as the new article in the American Sociological Review reminds us, they are a distinct minority. In our search for a solution to the work/life balance conundrum, it is best to begin by telling the truth about who we are.
Not that men should simply drop the iron and pick up the Doritos. First, the National Survey of Family and Households is merely descriptive; it captures the state of marriage as it is, not as it ought to be. Second, if the point is that sex in marriage depends on scripts and gender roles, then men have a part to play, too. In other words, put down the iron—and grab the gutter rake.
Each time I fold the laundry I feel about as maternal as I possibly can. By neatly folding the shirts and rolling the socks, I am telling my kids — and my husband, too — I love you and I care about you.
To me, it’s very insightful, just doing the laundry. I see the continuity of life. Their lives, and mine.
One day I know this will all be gone. All those tees and tanks, leggings and blankies, sheets and towels and everything else will have vanished.
I know I may sound nuts, but Laundry is a lot like Life.
I’m glad I have all those endless piles of clothes to wash. I’m glad I got to care for loved ones in such a basic a way. I can’t say I love folding clothes; but it is such a simple way to nourish and nurture.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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