November 19, 2014

Good, honest, industrious women – Army laundresses

Women attached to both the American and British armies received daily rations but were expected to contribute to their regiment. These army wives often performed nursing duties but there were a number of different jobs available. One lucrative position for these women included acting as laundresses since this service was in constant demand.

In the U.S. Army, women were paid local rates and were responsible for ensuring that the washhouse was kept clean. Laundresses were often the wives of senior enlisted men and frequently had a considerable amount of work to perform since American regulations stated that soldiers “will not wear their Fatigue Frock & Trowsers more than three Days without washing.”

Company commanders ensured that every woman had a fair proportion of washing so that the needs of the garrison were not neglected and to avoid complaints from some woman that others received more work and pay. Army regulations were firmly enforced and any transgressors were turned out of the garrison and “not suffered to enter it again.” It appears that some laundresses were dishonest and of a questionable moral character but the majority were, as one American general wrote, “good, honest, industrious” women “ever-ready for a fight, yet kind of heart in a rough manner, always ready to assist in times of distress.”

As for British laundresses, a popular military treatise published before the War of 1812 set out important guidelines. It stated methods for women to do their work properly and that these women be punctually paid so that they could perform their job correctly. Senior officers were permitted to set the price for laundry work and in one location, the going rate was two pence halfpenny (about four cents) for each shirt washed. Considering that private soldiers made about 20 cents per day, army wives could potentially earn more money than their husbands could. However, the fixed price could not be changed, and any woman “refusing to wash for the above sum will be struck off the rations.”

No matter what job army women performed during the war, their task was difficult and challenging. If you want to learn more about women in the 19th century, head to the Battlefield House Museum in Stoney Creek this Saturday for their Jane Austen event. Click here for more information. 

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