Washing clothes a big chore for area settlers

the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives
Special to Texoma Marketing and Media Group
An antique Kenmore-brand clothes washer is shown.

Bryan County History

Early settlers of Indian Territory got dirty - sometimes very dirty - claiming land and building soddies (small houses made of strips or blocks of sod). Most lacked the money or means to buy new clothes, so someone (usually a woman) had to drag the dirty ones down to the river, slosh them around, cover them with soap, rub them on a rock or wash board, slosh them some more and hang them on a bush, tree limb or makeshift rope line to dry. The results were adequate, at best.

As communities became established and settlers became Main Street businessmen, it was important to present a better appearance. Clean, pressed clothing created a good impression, but laundering was time consuming. While some wives happily exchanged the river for well water and a wash tub, others gave up the chore entirely.

Instead, they paid others to manage the family laundry. Bags of it could be left on the front porch once a week, or dropped off at a local laundry agent and it was returned fresh and folded in a few days. In many communities, the agent was the local barber. In 1888, the Denison Steam Laundry promised “special attention” for Indian Territory customers and declared that goods shipped from the territory “will be returned at any time required.”

A very detailed and practical book titled “Approved Methods of Laundering” was published by Proctor & Gamble in 1906. It contained eight pages of general instructions for washing five types of laundry, and more specific instructions for special items.

Laundry methods changed as equipment and soaps improved, but the basic ingredient for spotless clothing was usually human labor. For the first few years of statehood, much of that labor was provided by local women.

However, there was soon a dazzling array of laundry equipment and supplies to assist them in attaining spotless clothing and snowy white linens, which were “the pride of every housewife” in 1920.

Tubs, wash boards, wringers, drying racks, ironing boards, sad irons and laundry stoves were the mainstays of the weekly routine. Soaps, bluing, starch and other additives such as “Richard’s Magic Washing Stick” promised to make the drudgery faster and more efficient.

Unfortunately, one of the tenets of approved laundering was that boiling water killed germs and eliminated stains and odors. Building a fire and boiling water made the weekly chore quite dangerous. Women were sometimes burned, but more often it was a child who was scalded, burned or killed. Nineteen-year-old Maggie Marr of Durant was assisting in the family washing in 1919 when her clothing caught fire from the boiling pot. She was so badly burned that she died.

We’ve certainly come a long way from washing clothes in the river. Our great-great-grandmothers might be amazed by a “smart” washer with 14 cycles that can communicate with Alexa, or she might just tell us we’d be better off to let someone else take care of the family wash.

Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.

An advertisement for Richards Magic Washing Stick, which appeared in Talihina newspaper in 1915.