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Washing clothes, a never-ending chore for Muskoka’s early housewives

MUSKOKA LIFE — If a farmer’s workday was long and hard, so was that of the farmer’s wife. The old saying “a woman’s work is never done” was certainly true in her case. Among her never-ending chores was washing clothes.

Try to place yourself in an early Muskoka housewife’s shoes for a moment. Imagine just how soiled her husband and sons’ clothes would be – caked with dirt and sweat, smelling of body odour and who knows what else. Worse yet, these filthy shirts, pants and undergarments all had to be washed by hand in a process more laborious than you could possibly imagine.

Let’s follow a young housewife, newly arrived in Muskoka, step-by-step through the process of washing clothes

On the morning of wash day, build a crackling fire in the yard. Then, haul buckets of water to the house from the well or a nearby stream or lake, and pour into a kettle to be boiled over the fire. Now, bring washtubs outside, and be sure to place them in a place so smoke won’t blow into your eyes if the wind is brisk. When the water in the kettle is boiling, carry it to the wash tubs and pour in. Add one whole cake of lye soap into the boiling water.

You did make soap, didn’t you? No? Well you can borrow some of mine. For future reference, here’s how to make it (it’s another lengthy chore). Throw scraps of pork, rinds and fat into a barrel and when enough has accumulated, add lye that has been leached from hardwood ashes. The mixture will be boiled in a large iron kettle hung over a fire outside. You can add a bit of turpentine or resin during the boiling process to improve the quality of the soap. Hard soap is made from soft soap by adding a few handfuls of salt to the boiling mixture, then leaving it to set overnight before boiling it once again with some added turpentine or more salt. When the bubbling soap begins to thicken, it’s ready to be poured into moulds. 

Got all that? Good. Now back to washing the clothes. Sort clothing into three piles: one of whites, one of coloured, and a final one for work britches and rags. 

Begin with whites as you’ll want the cleanest water for them. Rub dirty spots on a washboard until the spot is removed, then boil. Coloured items are next. Again, you’ll rub them on the board, but don’t bother boiling them. Instead, just wrench and starch. Don’t know how to make starch? It’s easy. Stir flour in cool water until smooth, and then thin the mixture down with boiling water. Finally, wash rags and work britches. 

Hang clothes on a line to dry, pour the wrench water in a flower bed or nearby vegetable plot. Make use of the remaining hot, soapy water to scrub floors in the home. Lastly, turn the tubs upside down to dry and, later that day, bring them back inside.

Only now can you catch a few breaths. But not too many; your husband will be coming in from the fields soon and he’ll expect dinner on the table.

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