Women and the Labour of Laundry in the English Eighteenth Century

  • Author / Creator
    Rolfson, Terri L.
  • The history of female laundry labour in eighteenth-century England, and the accompanying social and economic contributions of such women, has yet to be fully explored by social historians and material culture specialists. Laundry labour was, with very rare exceptions, universally female. This thesis examines the economic factors and social forces which dictated female agency and perpetuated the profound and pervasive gendering of an essential domestic chore. Through the analysis of several case studies, a review of laundry systems and practices, a quantitative analysis of Sun Fire Insurance policies, and a material object study of linens, this paper demonstrates that the gendering of laundry work reflected and reinforced the lower and marginalized status of both the labour and labourer. Laundry labour involved hierarchical female networks defined by space and sociability that were cooperative and competitive. The low paying, physically demanding work of laundry lacked substantial technological advancements, and was directly tied to female life cycle stages. Clean white linen – the productive work of laundry – was employed as a powerful symbol in the eighteenth century which transmitted key societal values of cleanliness, respectability, status, and even morality. These deeply valued, morally imbued sartorial markers were only realized through the paradoxically undervalued labour of girls and women, who were often associated with an immoral character. The overarching aim of this thesis is to give voice to the collective army of laundry-maids, washerwomen, and laundresses, whose voices have otherwise remained quiet in the historical scholarship of eighteenth-century England.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2021
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Master of Arts
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.