A washerwoman usually had her own recipe for making soap – often including wood ash and lard as well as water.
A tub was used, and the washing was sorted much as we do today – also, very dirty clothes, or very heavy ones were soaked in lye first, then boiled, whilst lighter garments were washed in cold water by hand. Only the dirtiest items were scrubbed on a washboard contrary to popular belief, and there were various remedies for different stains; for example chalk was used on grease and oil, and lemon or onion juice were favourites for lightening stains. Alcohol and kerosene were good for grass and blood stains. For wax, hot coals wrapped in a clean rag were held against the garment. Milk removed both urine stains and smell. Human urine was widely favoured as a bleaching agent and was still used in the mid 1900s – it probably did work because of the ammonia!! (Presumably after using this, you had to go to the milk remedy?!)
Different things were used to prevent dyes from fading in the wash, – borax for reds; vinegar for pinks and greens; Lye for keeping blacks black, and wheat bran for all other colours, and for bleaching all colour from a faded garment it was boiled in cream of tartar water. Silks were washed in kerosene.
Wrinkles were a sign of a slovenly laundress, so starch was widely used and was made by the laundress from wheat, potato gratings or rice. Sugar was used on lace, which would then be sandwiched between two heavy books until dry.
The clothes would then be laid on clean grass or bushes or hung on a line, after having as much water as possible removed by passing them through a wringer.
Ironing required muscles……the flat, or “sad” iron of the 19th century was extremely heavy and several would be put to heat on the kitchen range so that they could be rotated as they cooled.