It is said that St. Petersburg was built on the bones of the builders, the army of serfs that drained the swamps and laid the foundations.
And then, too, as Emerson once said, there was a deal of guano in every immigrant ship that came to America. Buffalo skinners and railroad track men, how many laid down their only homestead and died.
So while we are on the subject, give a thought to the hundreds of thousands of permanently bent spines, the hernias, the paralyzing shoots of rheumatism that rattle around in your clean clothes. Blanchisseuses, Wascherfrau, laundresses, washing woman – from the early modern period to the washing machine of the 50s, this overwhelmingly female job was ill paid, unhealthy, and exhausting. It is, of course, far from over yet. In Mexico City, with its terrible water system, you will not find the American style washer/drier set up as the convenience we all have, and on the rooftops of even rich mansions you might well find the maid soaking clothes in the tub.
Now there is some justice in asking if intellectual history would come unscathed through the judgment of the bones it ignores. And such might be one judgment on solitude as I’ve been construing it. Solitude is a bourgeois affectation – I can hear the voice of the commissar say exactly that, imagine some cloth capped Marxist enforcer from the 30s or 50s pronouncing the very word ‘solditude’ with the utmost contempt.
But contempt has its day, too, its warrant, its reasons. There were armies of washerwomen, and it is a fair question: what would solitude mean to them? To the 167,607 who worked in England and Wales in 1861 (Malcolmson, 7) To the half of free black women who worked as laundresses in Philadelphia in 1840. In France, in the 1870s, there were 90,000 in Paris alone.
Here is what M. Moisy, author of Les Lavoirs de Paris, wrote about the washerwoman:
She has a good heart. A strong yeller, I concur – like the daughter of Mme Angot – she is not less strong in her good sentiments. When an accident, or unemployment strikes one of her neighbors: let a drive be organized in the lavoir: she always gives, even if the charity is to an enemy of yesterday.
She also has the love or her profession, more than other workers of any other profession, and it is tough, this job: the laundry worker begins at six in the morning, only takes an hour off to eat, and works until eight or eight thirty in the evening, around thirteen to fourteen hours a day.
Returned home, wet down to her bones, she has to prepare the soup for her husband and kids, and doesn’t get to sleep until she has done her housework.
The next day should puts on her humid rags to begin the day’s rude existence all over again.” (Barbaret I: 271 – my translation)
Such numbers of women force an image upon the collective mind. It is a little unsettling that the image of the washing woman in the 18th and 19th century corresponds so well to national stereotypes. In Germany and Austria, there was the hetera washerwoman, the Alte Wascherfrau, who had her place in Volkslied and Grimm’s tales, and even casts a shadow in Kafka’s The Trial. In France, from Jean Vadé’s 1740 comic Parisian dialect novel, Lettres de la Grenouillère to Balzac’s La Rabouilleuse, the blanchisseuse was renowned for her freedom, for her constant presence on Parisian streets, and, of course, for her erotic charm – a charm that wished away the wet rags of Moisy’s description. Balzac’s men, his mature men, ass men, cannot resist her. And in England? England, that frightening, puzzling place. Unlike the cook and the chambermaid, who at least get some bawdy attention from 18th century writers and printmakers, and of course get orders in respectable 19th century households, there is something like a negative space, as though the laundress really was a pariah. Which is not true, of course, about Ireland – the old washerwomen in Yeats, and the voices of them in Finnegan’s Wake, are taken from life – that is where the authentic circus animals come from. In America, as we have mentioned, race has everything to do with cleaning clothes.
Well, solitude and the washerwoman will take us to another post.