Laundry During the Civil War - The Laundress

The Invisible Women Behind the Troops

Civil War Laundry
Civil War Laundress. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Unlike the highly organized and efficient Quartermaster Corp of today's Army which handles laundry for our troops, America's Civil War men in blue and grey relied upon the camp laundress and laundry men. She often became one of the most respected and highest paid members of the camp for her basic, but important, work. She was also in charge of the men who assisted her in providing clean clothes for the officers and troops.

The Civil War Laundress

According to the Union Army's 1861 Military Handbook, only women of good character were allowed to be a laundress. Each woman had to obtain a "Certificate of Good Character" from Army headquarters before she was allowed to begin working. The laundress was usually married to or mother of one of the soldiers in the company with which she served. According to records, each Union company was allowed up to four laundresses while Confederate companies had up to seven laundresses. When broken down, this meant each Union laundresses was responsible for mending and cleaning the clothes of around 20 men.

The salary of the laundress was paid by the Army by deducting the fees from the soldiers' pay. Each enlisted man had 50 cents withheld monthly, unmarried officers $1.00 to $2.00 monthly and married officers paid $4.00 monthly. If the officer's had family traveling or visiting with the company, additional fees were negotiated.

For the men who could not afford to pay the fees, they washed their own clothes or simply wore them unwashed until the clothes feel apart.

The laundress was provided a tent, rations, a hatchet and services of the company surgeon. They were allowed to bring along their children, dogs and household items like beds, cribs and linens.

In her "free time" she often assisted the doctor with wounded and sick men. "Suds Row" where the laundresses worked and lived was off-limits to the rest of the camp. The women did not move with the troops during sieges and battles but did move as a new camp was set.

Civil War Laundry Equipment And Supplies

The laundress was required to supply her own equipment and supplies. The basic supplies for each woman were two 25-gallon oak tubs (each weighed about 35 pounds when empty), buckets, iron cauldrons for heating water, fire grates, scrub boards, homemade soap, bluing, ropes for clothes lines, irons and sewing supplies.

These tools were crucial to her livelihood and had to be kept in good shape. The wooden tubs and buckets leaked if they were left to dry for too long, so they had to be soaked to keep them watertight. However, the water had to be changed often because if left too long, the wood became slimy and rotted. Irons had to be stored standing up to keep the bottoms smooth, clean, and free of rust. Wax was placed on the irons to keep them from rusting.

And, the laundress had to make her own soap by rendering animal fat and adding lye. Soap making was a day long process of stirring the soap while it "cooked" over an open fire.

A few women did have access to soap from a company called Procter and Gamble. During the Civil War, the Cincinnati company won contracts to supply the Union Army with soap and candles. The military contracts introduced Procter and Gamble products to soldiers from all over the country. Once the war was over and the men returned home, they told their families about the company's products and launched their national, and then global, growth.

Doing laundry for the troops was, at best, a three to four day process for each load of clothes involving ten steps.

Ironing was not included in the usual price.

Each ironed shirt costs and extra three cents. Most of the troops saved their money for other things, but officers did pay for ironed shirts.

The job of laundress was hard labor under the conditions of weather and war. But the incentives that drew draw women to it were the pay and the opportunity to stay with her husband or son rather than endure a long or probable permanent separation.