Life on Soap Suds Row

A frontier post must’ve been a busy place with soldiers coming and going, marching, saluting, and fighting. But in addition to the men who lived on the post, there were officers’ wives and children. Lots of dirty, grimy clothes. A little-known fact is that up until 1878 the army hired laundresses, or washerwomen as some called them. Each soldier paid for his own laundry.

These ladies traveled with the soldiers in an official capacity and had free access to the army doctors and surgeons. In fact, they were the only females the army recognized and supported.

To get hired, a laundress first had to pass several hurdles. They had to have a certificate of good character from headquarters before they could assume duty and they had to be free of disease.

Once they passed, these women were issued a tent, bedding straw, a hatchet, a large wash tub and two mess pans. Each day they received a ration of meat, bread and whiskey. The whiskey might sound odd but it was issued to remove stains. *wink, wink*  I’m betting more than a few hard-working women drank it after a hard day of scrubbing clothes over a fire. It was hot, backbreaking work.

Each company was issued three or four laundresses. That averaged one for every 15-17 men. That’s a lot of dirty clothes for one person to wash.

The women lodged together on what was called Soap Suds Row on the fringe of the post. Their tents were often tattered and in disrepair. If a laundress married a soldier, which happened pretty frequently, he lived with her there.

A laundress’s work was extremely hard. She rose before dawn and chopped wood and hauled water. She often heated as much as 50 gallons of water a day in several tubs for soaking, scrubbing, and rinsing. Boiling was the final process (to kill lice, ticks, and fleas) before being hung up to dry.

Lye soap was the only kind available and that, plus the hot water, made their hands crack and bleed. She used a rub board to scrub the clothes on and that, too, was unkind to hands.

If a soldier wanted his clothes ironed that cost extra. Laundresses also did mending, sewed on buttons, and applied bluing to the final rinse to offset the yellowish tinge that light-colored clothing acquired from repeated washings.

But, laundresses were paid well. An average soldier paid $1 to $4 a month, depending on his rank. So, while an average soldier might draw $13 a month, a hard-working laundress could make up to $40 or over. Not bad at all. At least it was better than prostitution. Also, they didn’t have to worry that the soldier wouldn’t pay them because the army deducted it from the men’s pay before they even got it.

While some laundresses were soundly criticized for drunkenness and loose morals, the majority were honest, hard-working, kindhearted women who made a living doing a difficult job. It’s strange that in light of the crucial service these women provided they were considered at the bottom of the social ladder. Maybe that was due in part to the fact that few could read or write.

I’d like to read some accounts of their lives but little is known. More’s the pity. Diaries and journals recording their experiences would’ve made for interesting reading.

When I was a little girl, my mother, with only an 8th grade education, took in washing and ironing to help make ends meet. I watched her slave, on her feet all day, to make a few dollars. I can’t remember what she charged to wash the clothes (seems like was $1.50,) but I remember she got paid 50 cents a dozen to iron them. I still remember the smell of that starch and the freshly pressed clothes hanging all over the house.

Do you have early recollections of someone you know doing this? I’m giving away one $10 Amazon gift card.




Life on Soap Suds Row — 18 Comments

  1. My dad’s mother as a young teen moved from Oklahoma up to Northern Montana, they traveled by train, going to the coast then over to where they settled about 30 miles south of the Canadian border. She talked about how hard it was for them to wash there clothes on the trip as they were traveling in a box car. On wash day, whenever the train stopped, they would go to the cabose where the stove was to get the water, then rush back to their car, needless to say, wash day lasted several days. She also said they lost a few items, as they blew out the door. She said after they got settled, their mother, my great grandmother would tell them if they complained, she would put them back on the train, if they didn’t get busy.
    I can’t imagine how hard they had to work, and yet we complain that going to a laundromat is hard work. Me I am thankful the washer is at the end of the hallway.

    • Hi Veda…..Oh my goodness! I can’t imagine how horrible that must’ve been. Your poor great grandmother and mother. This breaks my heart. I’m sure they were worn and weary by the time they reached their destination. People today think they have life hard. They should’ve lived back then. Thank you for sharing this.

      Love you, lady! You’re in the drawing.

  2. No I don’t know anyone who did anything likes this. I hate laundry. You have to sort it pre treat stains put it in the washer then the dryer and then fold or hang up to put away. Ironing sucks.

    • Hi Gina……Thank you so much for coming. I’m with you. I don’t mind washing so much but someone has to take a whip to me to make me iron. I hate when I buy something thinking it’s permanent press onto to find out later it has to be ironed. Needless to say, I don’t wear that very often. I just hate ironing. I don’t know how my mother did it for a living.

      Hugs! I’ve entered you in the drawing.

  3. When Dad was away on Spec. Ops for USAF, we often stayed with grandparents in rural GA. My grandmother had the crank washtub to squeeze the water out once the clothes had been in washtub. Then hung out to dry. Had couple of irons like shown to press Sunday clothes. After laundry, the washtubs were where we bathed in the evenings. The irons also did double duty as during cold weather they were heated in wood stove, wrapped, and used to warm our feet under the blankets. Funny how growing up, I never once gave thought to how rich or poor. I was loved and that made me richer than gold.

    • Hi Teresa…….Thanks for coming and sharing this story about your life. We had one of those washers with the wringer to squeeze out the water. I got my hand caught it once when I was trying to help my mom. Scared me to death. Yes, everything back then had to serve a duel purpose. Those warm irons and rocks sure felt good on my feet. You know, people today look at you like you’re speaking a foreign language when you try to tell them things like this. Like you, I didn’t think too much about being poor or rich…until I started junior high. Then I was embarrassed at our circumstances even though I tried not to be.

      Love you, lady! You’re in the drawing.

  4. I don’t know anyone who did this, but I personally HATE laundry. It’s my personal most hated chore. lol However I would absolutely love to read a book about a heroine who was a laundress. Maybe one who came West on a wagon train and her husband or father/family died and she got a job as a laundress and fell in love with a soldier. Sounds like something you should write Linda. (wink wink) 😉

    • Hi Dale…….I’m really glad to see you. I hate laundry!! I let it go until I’m forced to trudge out to the washer. But ironing…that was invented by the devil. I cannot stand to iron. I’ve let things sit with their wrinkles for a year before I got the ironing board out. Hey, I think you have something there! Actually, while I was writing this, the idea came to me that it would make a great story.

      Love and hugs! You’re in the drawing.

  5. I don’t remember my grandmother taking laundry, but I do remember her cooking and heating the house with her wood stove, and having to use the outhouse and taking a bath in tub on the front porch. All good memories.

    • Hi Allison……Thanks for sharing those times. It sounds like you had a great childhood. I used to hate using an outhouse. Never could hold my nose long enough to get finished. And talk about the spiders in those. We had huge ones and lots of Granddaddy longlegs.

      Hugs, sweet lady! You’re in the drawing.

  6. How interesting. I’ve never even thought about how the soldier’s clothes got washed. Wow! What hard work. Yes, I too remember our mother taking in washing and ironing, but also our aunt (her sister.) A memory embedded in mind is the coke bottles they used to sprinkle the clothes. A metal top with holes punched in it and cork that fit down into the coke bottle filled with water served to sprinkle the clothes and help take out the wrinkles faster. Even with electric irons and washing machines, it was still hard work. Great post, sister.

    • Hi Jan…….Glad you came. You know, I had forgotten about those homemade sprinkle bottles. Those worked really well. Back then you learned to improvise. Yes, they did work very hard even with things that made it easier. Let’s face it, standing on your feet in one spot for hours at a time regardless what you’re doing is extremely hard work. I just loved the smell of starch and clean clothes that drifted over our house. To this day, it still makes me think of home.

      Love you, sister!

  7. Good afternoon Linda I’m late posting today I have not even looked at email until now. What a great article. I think women were never and still To this day in many respects not given credit or praise for all the hard work then endured. We do have it so much easier now than they did back then when it comes to laundry and many many other daily requirements. Thank you for such a great article and happy release date to you tomorrow. Love you Dearly, Tonya

    • Hi Miss Tonya…..Men really don’t know how hard women work and they sure don’t give them credit enough. Most of the time the wife has to hold down a full time too in addition to all this other. Thank you for the friendship and constant support.

      All my love, sister friend!

  8. We have several of the old irons still that had belonged to grandparents and great grandparents. Another use for them was to flatiron hair. When we first moved to El Paso in 1988 we hired a Mexican housekeeper and she wanted to make us tortillas. She asked us if she could use a couple of them when she put the tortillas on the griddle. Best tortillas ever. I can remember we used to have a lady come when I was in highschool to iron once or week or so. This was after my youngest sister and I moved in with my father and step-mother. Like me she didn’t grow up doing her own laundry and couldn’t stand ironing.

    • Hi Stephanie……Now that’s a new idea! Use your iron to heat tortillas. Yummy! Bet that iron would make great grilled cheeses too! Lots better than to iron clothes with. Ha!

      Love and hugs, warrior buddy!

  9. I don’t remember anyone doing laundry for hire but I do remember my grandmother using an old ringer type washer and I remember getting my fingers caught more than once in those rollers. I remember when it went out she wouldn’t have nothing but another one when by this time she could have gotten a modern type washer. Tho not near as hard as a scrub board and bucket it still was an all day shore to wash laundry with her

    • Hi Glenda dear……..Your grandmother sounds like a wonderful woman. She was used to doing things her way and with something she knew about. Good for her. Yes, that wringer washer was lots better than a scrub board. Lots. Bet she ironed her share of clothes too, truth be known.

      Much love and hugs!