The story behind the the wash-houses

The story behind the the wash-houses

Almost every French city has a washhouse, but what’s their history in French culture and what started the mass-construction of these in the mid-19th century?

The wash-houses of France and their history
The wash-house is a very common cultural element in the French countryside. So common that even passers-by usually only look at it quickly. And at first glance, they all look alike.

Visitors are often drawn to a chapel or manor house, rarely to a wash-house, although most today have been beautifully restored.

The wash-houses were created by law
Most wash-houses are from the 19th century because it was finally realized that the dirty laundry caused the spread of diseases like cholera, measles or smallpox that ravaged at the time.

There were private laundries that the owners sometimes made available to the residents, but only a few public laundries.

By a law of February 3, 1851, the state decided to cover up to 30% of the construction costs of communal wash-houses. This started a wave of constructions that hit all the municipalities in France.

The wash-house in Monaco with a view overlooking the Mediterranean
The covered wash-house in Monaco with great views – ©cityxee.com

They were typically located on the outskirts of the city center and near natural springs of water. And they can vary in design from the very simple to quite magnificent. Some with stunning views of the Mediterranean, such as the wash-house in Monaco.

But apart from the requirements for hygiene and cleanliness, the laundries combined two essential functions: one practical, the other social.

The washing method of the time
For the modern man who grew up in the era of the washing machine, one is used to most of the work with the laundry taking place centrally around the clothes. That was not the case in the old days. Let us remember how clothes were still washed in the early 1800s.

First of all, this operation was not very frequent. Bed linen and heavy work clothes could very well only be washed twice a year during the “big wash”, other pieces of clothing, at best every week.

Most of the work, exclusively female, took place at home or in the courtyard. The dirty laundry was laid out flat in a large wooden bathtub and filled with lukewarm water.

The next day, after emptying the tub of water, a large piece of linen was stretched over the clothes.
On the linen piece a layer of ash was spread, carefully reduced to powder. The ash typically came from burnt oak or dried ferns. This ash, rich in potassium carbonate, has been known since ancient times for its cleansing power. Then slowly pour buckets of hot water into the tub, but not boiling, over this layer to dissolve the stains, and then the laundry could soak overnight.

It was not until the third day that the contents of the tub were transported to the river or to the wash-house, in baskets or in a wheelbarrow. It was there, in clear water, that each piece of clothing was rinsed, beaten and rinsed again and then twisted and brought home to dry on the grass, on hedges or over a wire.

And the soap, you mean?
It’s pretty simple! Until the mid-19th century or so, there was no soap!
Or rather, it was too expensive and the majority of the population could not afford it.

In 1856, the metal sink gradually replaced the wooden tub, and as the price of soap became affordable, laundry also became more frequent.

The public wash-houses were then upgraded so that they were not only used for rinsing. The bottom of the basin was paved, the sides were sometimes equipped with benches for depositing the laundry, the floor in the periphery was cemented so that the washing women could stand with the washing basket on a flat and dry ground and no longer in the mud when kneeling to soap and beat the clothes.

Some wash-houses even got a roof to protect the laundresses from bad weather.

Facebook of the day
The social role of the wash-houses was important. This is where the girlfriends met. They laughed, they talked, and it was clear that the talk was widespread.

Women who could not take care of their young children brought them to the wash-house.

Any male adult presence was prohibited, and in the event of an offense, the man was sometimes apprehended and thrown into the water to the laughter and scorn of the entire group.

From then on, we understand how important it was that laundry was made more bearable, thanks to a cheerful atmosphere, and as comfortable as possible.

It is this social role that gives the wash-houses all its significance. It is also likely that the first awareness of injustices developed as a result of the oppression of women at that time.

Renovation of the wash-houses
Times have changed and the laundries will never regain their former significance.

The covered and renovated wash-house in Saint Jeannet
Beautifully renovated wash-house in Saint Jeannet – ©cityxee.com

Instead of turning them into shiny museum objects that are always waiting for their missing laundresses, the wash-houses have been lovingly renovated to showcase them in an inviting environment, so we might want to explore their original work and show due respect for the washing cones.

There is a French website for wash-houses throughout France – www.lavoirs.org – unfortunately their English version is not quite up to date.

By Mikael Mortensen / 2020

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