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Tuesday, June 7, 2022

The Victorian Laundry

The Victorian Laundry

By C. A. Asbrey 

Some time ago I did a post on cleaning in the past, and many of the tips and recipes for organic cleaning materials proved very popular. Today I'm going to take us to the laundry and share the secrets of stain removal from days gone by.

In the days before dry cleaning and washing machines, it was the job of the lady's maid to delicately treat stains, repair wear and tear, and ensure that the complex layers of fabric in elaborate gowns were all as good as new for the next wearing. Often, this job would mean removing trims and ribbons before washing, treating those separately, and then reattaching them. Sometimes this involved weaving them through the intricate lace of broderie anglaise. At other times, feathers needed to be cleaned, or the lace itself, not to mention elaborate fabric flowers or motifs.

Before we start on the dresses themselves, how were the trims washed? Lace and broderie anglaise were pretty simple, often hand washed in a gentle soap in lukewarm water. Satin or velvet ribbon received a similar treatment, but it was important not to twist these, or wring them out. That would ruin them. Any stains on the trim were dealt with as per the treatments for the same fabric on a gown, which I'll come to later. Lace was washed around ribbon blocks or bottles, and tacked to keep them smooth, whilst being cleaned by sweet oil, and Castile soap. The lace was dried in the sun and kept flat in paper between books, or wrapped around ribbon blocks until added back to the dress   

Salt was used, not only to soften the water, but to aid in colour fastness in an era where dyeing was less sophisticated. Ribbons were notorious for being less colour fast than bales of fabric, and it simply would not do to allow them to fade in the wash.   

For feathers, there were two methods of cleaning. One was to scatter them with a mixture of salt and bicarbonate of soda, and gentle shake, or brush, away the dust. Brush only in the direction of the plumage using a very soft brush. Feathers can be washed individually in a soapy solution. Again, never rub against the direction of the plumage, and fully rinse away any soap residue. Never wash different colours of dyed feathers together.

They should be hung by the stem to dry. If your feathers, particularly ostrich feathers, lose their fluff, a light steaming can return them to their full glory. Once more, follow the plumage as you gently rub. The steam will make the original fluff return, but once they have reached their original glory, stop immediately. Go too far, or treat the feather too roughly, and you'll lose that plume forever.      

Printed muslin was a very popular dress fabric in the nineteenth century. This too, suffered from the problem of the prints not being colour fast. Again, salt was used to help fix the dye during the washing stage. The salt was also required during the double rinse stage, and when carefully wrung out, the dress was hung so no part lay over another, so no part of the pattern could be inadvertently transferred to another area of the fabric.

Silk dresses were spot treated before being washed. The 1861 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book described a stain remover for silk as follows:

"Quarter of a pound of honey; quarter of a pound of soft soap; two wineglasses of gin; three gills of boiling water."

This mixture would be applied to the stain at blood temperature with a soft brush. It would be worked in until the stain dissipated. The whole fabric would then be sponged by hand, and the dress dried across a clothes horse after rinsing in softened cold water. Rain water was often collected for this purpose, as well as for a final rinse for washing hair. The lady's maid was advised not to let the fabric dry in direct sun, as that too, would fade a delicate dye. Sal-volatile, a scented solution of ammonium carbonate in alcohol, and better known as smelling salts, was used to help restore colour removed from silks.  

To remove grease stains from silk, French chalk is scraped on the wrong side, left for some time, them scraped off. If the stain is more persistent hold the fabric covered in French chalk near the fire or over steam, until the stain melts and is absorbed by the chalk. The method can be repeated until the stain isn gone.

The Victorians fully embraced formal mourning, and as such, wore black and dark fabrics in a way we do not today. Those dresses were susceptible to stains from food, candles, oil from lamps and cooking, grubby children's fingers, and everyday life. Most of those stains were slightly greasy and shone out in dull fabrics.      

Fig leaves contain furocoumarins that can cause a phototoxic reaction on skin, but that acidic property also makes for a great stain remover. Fig leaves were boiled in two quarts of water, until they were reduced to a pint This solution was then sponged onto a stain as a spot cleaner. It helped dissolve the grease before the fabric was washed.  

To clean shiny black satin, boil three pounds of potatoes in a quart of water, strain through a sieve, and brush the fabric with it on a board or table. The satin must not be wrung, but folded down in cloths for three hours, and iron on the wrong side.  

Mild acid was also used to remove ink. The 1857 book Mrs. Hale's Receipts for the Million by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale gives a recipe for its removal as follows: As soon as the accident happens, wet the place with the juice of sorrel or lemon, or with vinegar, and the best hard, white soap.

For larger areas stained with ink Mrs. Hale suggests, get a pint cup, or narrow-topped jug full of boiling water; place the stained part of the (linen etc.) dip it in and draw it tight over the top of the cup, and while wet and hot, rub in a little salt of sorrel. The acid should remain on the fabric for half-an-hour before it is washed. As salt of sorrel is a power poison, the paper should be marked poison, and it should be locked up when not in use.   

Pitch and tar were a problem, especially around the hems. It was suggested that the worst be scraped off, and that a mixture of turpentine and lemon juice be used to dissolve away the residue.

There were special rinses use to help preserve the colours of expensive silks. Sometimes, small quantities of dye were added to the final rinse, but also vitriol (sulphuric acid) was used to brighten scarlet, crimson, maroon, or bright yellow. Ox-gall was sponged on both sides of black. Lemon juice was used for pink, carnation, or rose. A pinch of verdigris maintained olive-green, whilst pearlash (a strong alkaline compound consisting mainly of potassium carbonate) worked on blue and purple. 

The wonderful Mrs. Hale also gives a recipe for a portable stain remover for accidents out and about. She suggests a mix of fullers earth, pearlash, lemon juice worked into a paste, them formed into balls that are dried in the sun. These can be used to remove most average stains. Moisten the stain, rub on the ball, and rinse the area. Once dry, the stain should be gone.  

The lady's maid also tended to the shoes. To remove grease from leather, apply egg white and let it dry in the sun. Mix turpentine, half an ounce of mealy potatoes (known to us as the most starchy varieties like russets and Idahos), pure ground mustard, and apply this mixture to the spot. Once dry, rub off, and finish with a little vinegar.

Kid gloves were cleaned by donning them, and rubbing French chalk over the palms and fingers as though washing the hands. Leave the chalk on overnight, then put the gloves on again and clap the hands until all the chalk is gone. Fullers earth can also be used. Dirty spots can be treated with a normal pencil eraser. White or pale kid gloves were rubbed with white rose petals to remove yellowing, and not only did the petals remove the discolouring, but it gave an added protection against stains in the future. 

Straw bonnets were cleaned by using powdered brimstone, a powdered sulfur, but if they were no longer worth saving they could be completely recycled. First the hat could be sponged with soap and water, rinsed and air-dried. It can be stiffened with beaten egg white, dried in hot sun. If you want to reduce it down to fit a child, simply remove the border, and unpick the sewing on the rounds on the crown. Use a hat block to reform the rounds to the desired size, and rebuild a smaller brim. Brims can be reshaped through steaming. The egg white method can be used to stiffen once more.

The maid would also clean and perform minor repairs to jewellery and accessories. Broken tortoiseshell was held by hot pincers between sheets of paper. The tortoiseshell would fuse, plastic-like, back together. Gold was cleaned by boiling it in soapy water, then rubbing it in a cloth with magnesia powder. A soft brush could be used on embossed pieces. Pearls were cleaned by immersion in a mixture of water in which bran had been boiled, salt of tartar and alum. Rinse in lukewarm water, and leave to dry. Storing pearls in magnesia powder, rather than the box provided, ensured that the brilliance was maintained. 

Anyone thinking that the role of a lady's maid was easy, doesn't understand their repertoire of home-made cosmetics, hair dyes, and laundry-wonder. They were part seamstress, laundress, hairdresser, dresser, fashionista, and pharmacist. They had to keep up to date with current modes and styles, as well as identifying how best to style her mistress. I'll cover their makeup and beauty tips in my next post, but until then I hope you enjoy the tips of laundry and the accessories that helped keep the Victorian lady look her very best.  


“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 



  1. Love the twists and turns in your excerpt, Christine!

    Interesting post. I never realised how skilled Lady's Maids needed to be, or how much work was involved in their role

    1. Thank you. Yes, I didn't realize all their secrets and recipes either, but I enjoyed researching it.

  2. I knew the lady's maid job was a tough one, but I had no idea. What a gift you've shared. Thank you. Doris

    1. Thanks so much. Yes, it's been a revelation to me too. I can see all this research developing into something new!

  3. Thanks for all the great information about cleaning methods and ladies' maids. I had no idea that garments were disassembled for cleaning and reassembled.

    1. I learned a lot doing the research. I have a new character formulating in my head right now. They did so much I didn't realise.