“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

at the portals of the modern with a basket in my arms

So my faithful gadfly North wants to know, why washerwomen?
Wash women. Laudresses.

Why not seamstresses? Why not the workers in pin factories? Why not paysannes or prostitutes?

Well, partly it is for that most male of reasons: la donna è mobile. Blanchisseuses in 18th century Paris were not only numerous, but also moved in a number of social spaces. The obscure washed their own clothes, often jostling professional wash women on the banks of the Seine. As one climbs the ladder of notability, however, self-presentation, and thus clean linen, becomes ever more important.

And then, too, what would our artificial paradise be without chemicals? In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, while some remnant alchemists looked for universal solvents or the philosopher’s stone, others – whose very spirit is breathed out by the wonderful planches in the encyclopedia, those busy, small worlds – turned to more practical questions. And what was more practical than a better soap. Various substances – from dried pig’s shit to oak ash – were used to get cloth clean. Soap was the big expense for a wash woman – in 1789, when the cahiers de doleances, or notebooks of complaint (or, to be all Jeremiah about it, books of Lamentation) were collected throughout France, the blanchisseuses of Marseilles presented their complaint that the regulations concerning the composition and price of soap were not being respected.

And the relation between soap and clothes is as dramatic, in its way, as that between thesis and antithesis in Hegel’s dialectic. Clothes, after all, took on the complete impress of the ordinary – and especially the extraordinary. Every wine stain, every drop of grease, sperm, juice, all the perfumes and powders, all the sweat – and it is just these fantasmal half-beings, social doxa, that had to disappear. They had to be trampled, beaten, spindled, driven out – all these real ghosts, ghosts in material time. At the same time, the cloth itself had to be preserved. Soillure, dirt, - ground terms, terms that are rooted in the fundamentals of purity and impurity – and the wash woman stands at these archaic portals of purity. “There is not a city where one uses up more linen,” wrote Sebastian Mercier about Paris. And there was not a city where the archaic so joins the modern.

The modern came in the form of Claude Louis Berthollet’s invention of “l’eau de Javel”, in which chlorine was dissolved in a solution of potash lye. You may think that here we have got away from the gods, but actually, here we begin the divine and diabolic course that has touched every creature on earth – for it is among the elements of social life, raising crops, cleaning clothes, that chemistry turned practical, and then took over the human sphere to a point we cannot even comprehend.

Meanwhile, the body breaking method of beating clothes was also slowly being modified. In London, in 1782, Henry Sidgier was issued a patent for a drum rotating machine to wash clothes. Obscure Sidgier! And yet, as Lee Maxwell points out in his history of the washing machine, the principle of the drum rotating machine remains the same today.

What is funny is that out of this vast, centuries old enterprise, relatively little comes down to us. Compare the songs we all know celebrating the cowboy, to those we know celebrating the wash woman. In fact, do we know any celebrating the wash woman? The ‘we’ here is Anglophone. In fact, in France and Germany, and no doubt in Italy, those songs and the literature certainly remain.

It is to the literature I will go next.


Anonymous said...



northanger said...

i'm a gadfly! wheeeee! (that's a good thing, right?)

northanger said...

:O( i don't bite livestock, that's gadfly profiling!

roger said...

Well you know North - like socrates. Buggin people about what they mean, just as they are getting in the flow and think that they are high styling.

roger said...

Talking about high styling... I looked everywhere for a wash woman's blues. I was sure there would be such a thing. But I only found bessie smith, and I couldn't find a vid of it. There is an albert king song about laundries, but I was lookin' for something female.

I'm hugely surprised at this. Hugely! I must be looking in the wrong places, cause surely the washing and ironing of clothes leads to singing sad sad songs.

northanger said...

that explains everything then! my hemlock: smoking, sugar & caffeine.

northanger said...

well, i'll look for some sad sad washerwoman songs after i get my hemlock fix today. but, in case you didn't know, unicorns were first discovered in soap bubbles.

the sacred unicorn, the patron saint of washerwomen. when reality keeps giving and giving.

northanger said...

that was easy: Washboard Blues

roger said...

North, I didn't say there was none - but the ones that exist are often by men, or often - as Memphis Minnie's wash woman's blues - about something else.
But Hoagy's song is good:

And here's a sad version of Albert King's laundrymat

northanger said...

how about, Betty Wright, Clean up Woman

northanger said...

Roger! where are you? i have a question.

northanger said...

free pie!

Top Ten Ways The Country Would Be Different If Britney Spears Were President

northanger said...

ok. never mind Roger, the fairy pea pointed me in the right direction. Gramsci!

roger said...

O britney! The brief flash of the wild animal in her tamed to entertain the late night audience with a cheap bikini and mindless blond jokes. "You say I'm crazy/I'll show you crazy..."

northanger said...

didn't i tell you not to worry about britney? she's bouncy trouncy!

P.M.Lawrence said...

I take it you do know that, in France at least (as my mother, who was brought up there, told me), laundress was often a euphemism for prostitute?

I am also reminded of an old saying my father often repeated, "we'll never get rich taking in each other's washing", which has many meanings at several levels.

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, of course, this is why you find 19th century Victorians so embarrassed about the word.

Any free woman in the streets was of course going to eventually be known as a prostitute. Or get propositioned as one. Patriarchy in action.