Life on Soap Suds Row

buffalo soldiersThe frontier post must’ve been a busy place with soldiers coming and going, marching and saluting. But men weren’t the only ones who lived on the post. There were officers’ wives and children. And a little known fact is that up until 1878 the army hired laundresses, or washerwomen as some called them.

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

To get hired, a laundress 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.

LaundressesOnce 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 drank it after a hard day of scrubbing clothes over a fire. It was backbreaking work.

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

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

Woman washingA 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 to them 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. That was a lot of money back then. At least it was better than prostitution. And 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.

fort concho

While some 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 who was uneducated, 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, but I remember she got paid 50 cents a dozen to iron them. Good Lord! That was so cheap for such a lot of work. 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?


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Life on Soap Suds Row — 4 Comments

  1. I love your post amazing what all happened back then. A lot is talked about Cowboys and settlers but women were a huge part of the whole picture.

    • Hi Tonya….Thanks for coming. You’re right about women not getting any recognition. They worked so hard and yet were often overlooked. I don’t think I’d last long as a washerwoman. Lye soap, hot water, bleeding hands, scrubbing on a rub board….no thanks. I would’ve drank that whiskey instead of using it to remove stains! What a life.

  2. Great post Linda, I can’t think of a time when my mother took in washing for someone. I do remember my aunt whould iron for people. Myself I don’t iron to much anymore but if it needs it I will iron it. Not one of my favorite jobs.

    • Hi Quilt Lady…….I don’t like to iron either. I have some blouses that need it and I keep putting it off. I try to buy perma-press clothes but sometimes I get one or two that aren’t. My mama would do anything to make a little money. She worked really hard. But that was the pioneer way. Just do whatever needed doing without a fuss.