Linen and Laundry

Hausbuch_Wolfegg_18v_19r_BadehausThe 17th century brought a change in English standards of cleanliness. In the middle ages, public bathhouses were common and popular throughout Europe. But concern over the licentious behavior of patrons along with the spread of the plague put a damper on public bathing. People began to believe that it wasn’t safe to immerse their whole bodies in water as medical theories developed about the dangers posed by extremes of temperature and moisture. Hot water opened the skin’s pores, making the body more susceptible to “venomous air.” And cold water chilled the body and blocked perspiration. It seemed as if dirt on the skin was healthier than water.

But Europeans were still concerned with cleanliness. They just didn’t believe that water-based methods were a safe way to achieve it. By the 1600’s, wiping away sweat and rubbing the skin had replaced bathing as the accepted way to clean parts of the body covered by clothing. Europeans reasoned that the necessary rubbing could be done by simply wearing clothes, relying on the friction of the cloth against the skin to clean it. So the custom of wearing linen next to the skin became increasingly popular. They believed it was sufficient to remove the dirt and far better than immersing the body in water.

adc4ed86f475688226487a4353ca9e98Medical theories of the day supported this approach. Doctors believed that sweating allowed the body to expel toxins through the pores, and if they weren’t sufficiently driven out they could reenter the body and “corrupt” the blood, resulting in disease and even death. Wearing linen next to the skin protected one from disease by absorbing the toxins. Linen was the cloth of choice because it could be easily washed (unlike woolens, leather, and fur).

A man’s undergarment was a shirt, while a woman’s was known as a shift. White linen became the standard fabric for these. But linen production was labor-intensive; flax had to be grown, rotted, beaten, combed and spun before it could be woven into cloth. As a result it was expensive, and linen cloth was often valued more highly than any other household possession.

Because linens, especially undergarments, were supposedly swarming with toxins after a day’s work, they had to be washed often. From the beginning, laundry was regarded as women’s work. It was an exhausting, lengthy process, rarely done alone. The practice of weekly washing didn’t emerge until the late 1700’s; instead it was a seasonal, group task. Large amounts of water had to be heated for both washing and rinsing; the linens had to be beaten (or “bucked”) Stains were removed by soaking clothes in urine overnight. Soap-making was also a lengthy process that took a week or more, using tallow (rendered animal fat) and lye (made from ashes).

Though the English colonists valued cleanliness, the natives regarded them as dirty and smelly. Natives bathed their bodies regularly and didn’t make a connection between water and disease. The skins and furs they wore were weather-resistant. Over the generations, we seem to have combined both approaches to cleanliness – we bathe regularly, wear weather-resistant clothing, and also do loads and loads of laundry.

piles of laundry


Shirts and Skins

SamosetPilgrimsEven before the Puritans met any Native Americans face-to-face, they had made up their minds: Indians were filthy and beast-like, with an appetite for human flesh. What they saw when they did encounter natives, (while they found no evidence of cannibalism), served to shore up their wariness. Natives didn’t build and accumulate furniture; they didn’t tend animals. They didn’t have beds or linens. They displayed their bodies, favoring nudity and animal skins over proper English clothing. They referred to bodily functions matter-of-factly. They didn’t swaddle their babies and allowed their toddlers to run around naked. They had a habit of frequent bathing, exposing their nude bodies directly to the air and water—and to the view of others. And to top it off, they were a graceful, healthy, attractive people. As the Englishman John Josslyn, wrote, the women were “broad Breasted, [with] handsome straight Bodies, and slender . . . Their limbs cleanly, straight, and of a convenient stature, generally, as plump as Partridges, and. .. of a modest deportment.” This attraction made them all the more dangerous to the Puritans; Indians, they knew, were a serious threat to the morals and piety of the Puritan community.

At the same time, the New England natives had reservations about the personal habits of the colonists. English clothing, while it was useful to wear for ceremonies or as a sign of friendship when meeting with the English, was unpleasantly confining, often uncomfortable, and even hazardous. It threatened to soften their robust bodies which had hardened through regular exposure to fresh air. It was restricting to movement when working and harbored lice and other parasites. It hindered bathing and anointing skin with moisturizing and protective agents. The English habit of wearing long linen shirts (or shifts) under their outer clothes to absorb sweat and dirt held no attraction. They did not want to follow the English practice of washing linens regularly. The prospect of regularly sweating over kettles of boiling water and scrubbing out stains with harsh soaps did nothing to increase the appeal of adopting English clothing. Natives had no desire to give up their skins for English linen shirts.

The two cultures had profoundly different approaches to personal cleanliness. Both seemed practical in the context which generated them. But when circumstances brought them into close proximity, these differences became one more opportunity for misunderstanding. It took generations for these differences to fall away and make room for a new synthesis.

Yet now we live in a time when most people accommodate to seasonal changes by exposing more or less of our bodies to the open air. We anoint our skin with moisturizers. We tend animals in our homes and accumulate furniture. We speak matter-of-factly about bodily functions. We no longer think regular baths are dangerously sensual. We regularly bathe and we also wear sweat-absorbent underclothes that require us to regularly do laundry.

The daily habits of the culture we grow up in will always seem normal to us. But we humans are wired so that, when we encounter people whose customs are different than our own, we gradually adopt the ones that enhance our lives. It’s only when we encounter people whose customs are quite different than ours that we can judge the relative worth of our own habits.