Doing the laundry in early San Diego.

You think doing the laundry is a pain?

Well, back in the mid-19th century, in early San Diego, doing the laundry was a very big pain!

Last weekend I enjoyed listening to a Hidden History talk in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park about the difficulty of cleaning clothes before the advent of handy-dandy push-button washing machines.

Wash day was actually a three day project that began with walking down to the San Diego River multiple times while carrying a bucket. About 50 gallons would be required.

In dusty Old Town, with livestock running around, clothes would get really filthy. The sorting process included the consideration of material–often cotton or wool–and filthiness. After sorting came spot cleaning with lye soap (made by boiling wood ash) and borax (brought in from the desert).

Then clothes and under garments would be generally cleaned with boiling hot water in a big tub using a wooden paddle (for stirring) and washboard (possibly imported to the isolated, undeveloped town by ship) for scrubbing. (My arms are sore just thinking about it!)

Yes, then the hanging out to dry–fortunately San Diego has a warm, dry climate.

And then the ironing.

You had to prep the iron by scraping the bottom, put it on a stove and heat it to just the right temperature so you don’t burn yourself or the clothes, then more arm work. Later irons were more fancy–you could put coals in them. Just don’t get the ash from the coals on the clothes!

In those days, doing the laundry was a job designated for women. The process was so long and involved, they usually wouldn’t cook on wash days. Food for the family would be prepared in advance.

In 1860 San Diego had 4 dedicated laundresses–indigenous and Irish women. In 1870, when San Diego’s population had grown to 2300, there were 32, including Chinese immigrants who were then arriving in California.

That’s a hasty summary of the Hidden History talk, which everyone enjoyed as we sat on a pleasant Saturday in front of the State Park’s historic Colorado House.

On Sunday I threw my dirty clothes into a washing machine, added detergent from a plastic bottle and pressed a button. Transferring my clothes to the drier was oh-so difficult!

I tried to take good notes, but don’t rely on what I’ve written here as 100% accurate. If you’re doing research and came upon this blog post, make sure to read other sources!

I live in downtown San Diego and love to walk around with my camera! You can follow Cool San Diego Sights via Facebook or Twitter!

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Richard Schulte

Downtown San Diego has been my home for many years. My online activities reflect my love for writing, blogging, walking and photography.

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