Tudor Hygiene Part 2- Housework

The Tudors generally accepted that there was a link between dirt and disease and for this reason tried to keep their houses clean. This was no easy task considering that most houses had earth floors, which were dusty and difficult to maintain. Household items such as plates and bowls were generally made out of wood posing another challenge to housewives that were required to maintain these items clean without the assistance of commercial cleaning agents.

If you were a wealthy Tudor then perhaps you had flagged stone floors and pewter utensils but your staff would still have had to clean these with the basic cleaning materials of the day.

A woman and four children sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger

The job of the Tudor housewife was a hard one. Even prior to commencing her work she would need to locate an adequate water supply and because water is heavy to transport, many daily tasks were undertaken outside even in the wintertime. This also eliminated the problems associated with disposing of wastewater. Unlike today, there were no drains inside the house in which wastewater could be disposed of and so it often meant carrying the waste water outside to the ‘sink’ or hole in the ground.

Alison Sim states that one of the most basic jobs that the Tudor housewife had to perform was scouring (Pg. 50). This would have been a time consuming job as everything from ‘the vessels used in the dairy to the knives would need scouring’ (Sim, Pg. 50).

Today, we would generally use an abrasive or detergent for this particular task but the Tudors usually used sharp river sand. Sim also describes how the plant known as horsetails (Equisetum telmateia) was also used to scour anything from wooden and pewter plates to armour (Pg. 50). This plant was an important Tudor cleaning agent.

If the scouring already has you tired then brace yourself for the washing! If you could afford it you employed a washerwoman as this was a terribly time consuming job.

As we already mentioned in part one of this article, the Tudors took great care in ensuring their linen was clean as it was a sign of one’s respectability. Everybody tried to change their linen daily with the wealthier Tudors changing several times per day but that’s not all that required washing. Tablecloths and sheets also required laundering and were often cleaned by a process called ‘bucking’. Alison Sim describes the process in great detail:

“A buck tub was a large tub, rather like a barrel, which stood up on a stand that raised it about a foot from the ground. It had a tap set about an inch above the bottom. A shallow wooden tub was placed under the tap. Filling the bucking tub (or ‘laying’ the buck) was quite a skilled task, as the linen had to be folded and set in such a way that the water poured in at the top would run through all the linen, and so that dirty water would not be caught up in the material and so leave a dirty mark. Sticks were placed between the bundle of linen so that the water could pass through freely.” (Pg. 53)

Once the tub was filled with linen, ley would be poured in the barrel. This ‘strong alkaline solution’ was made either by making water pass through clean wood ashes or from the ashes of dried ferns (Sim, Pg. 53).

Once the linen had been left to soak, the ley would be let out through a tap at the bottom of the tub and then the linen would be turned. Once the dirt was dissolved, the linen was rinsed in running water and if required ‘also bleached in the sun and wind by laying it on the ground or over a bush, and wetting it repeatedly’ (Sim, Pg. 53).

I am exhausted simply from reading about that process. Imagine having to do it daily!

Bucking was fine for tougher materials but the very fine linen worn by the wealthy Tudors could not have been exposed to such a process. Instead it would have been washed with soap.

The ‘black-soap’, as it was known then, had ‘a jelly-like’ consistency and was made by boiling fat up with lye (Sim, Pg. 54). When stored in barrels it appeared black thus its name. Alison Sim states that soap-boiling was a large-scale industry in the 16th century suggesting that most people bought their soap rather than making it themselves.

Henry VIII’s laundress, Anne Harris, used soap to perform her royal washing duties as recorded in the financial accounts of the time.

‘The King’s laundress Anne Harris was to wash the tablecloths and towels, and provide herbs to keep the drapery sweet. She was paid 10 pounds a year, which was a good salary, but it stated quite specifically that she must provide her own soap.’ (Sim, Pg. 54)

This is not where the washerwoman’s duties ended. In the 16th century clean linen was a sign of one’s respectability but white linen was a sign of your wealth. The whiter the linen, the wealthier the owner.  If you could afford it you purchased your linen ready-bleached but if you couldn’t and you purchased the ‘un-bleached’ version then it was a greyish-cream colour and would only be transformed into the coveted white linen through repeated bleaching.

But what did the Tudors use for bleach? Well, that’s the not so nice part- they used human urine. The bleaching process was similar to the bucking process except instead of adding ley to the wash urine was added to lye.

The washing would then have to be dried by ‘spreading them on the ground or by putting them over a bush or hedge’ (Sim Pg. 55). I imagine in winter this would have been a very challenging task.

Another challenging task would have been looking after the luxurious fabrics found in the wardrobes of the wealthy Tudors. Apart from very fine linen, fabrics like silk, velvet and even cloth of gold needed cleaning. A wealthy Tudor’s clothes was often embroidered, an extra headache and what of the fine wall hangings that decorated homes or the fur that lined winter garments.

Well, woolen items were brushed weekly and shaken out to keep the moths out and furs that had hardened were sprinkled with wine, left to dry and then rubbed until soft (Sim, Pg. 59).

Removing stains from fine fabrics was a difficult job and Alison Sim believes that because so many alternative ways of treating stains existed it suggests that it was a rather ‘hit or miss’ affair (Pg. 59).

An example of an instruction found in The Profitable Book Declaring Dyvers Approved Remedies suggests that to wash both silk and gold one should heat water, add soap allowing it to melt and then once the water is almost cold, wash the garments. The garment should then be dried with dry cloths laid between the layers (Sim, Pg. 60).

Removing grease stains from clothing is difficult enough today. I have in the past found our modern stain removers useless when it comes to removing grease stains. So what did the Tudor do? John Partridge recommends using the water in which peas had been soaked and the Profitable Book suggests applying Castille soap with a clean feather (Sim, Pg. 60).

It is clear that when it comes to stain removal, there was plenty of advice to choose from. Whether the advice actually worked was another matter entirely.

The Tudor housewife had a very complicated job and therefore would have loved the advice given by Thomas Tusser about not over doing the cleaning:

No scouring for pride

Spare kettle whole side

Though scouring be needful, yet scouring too much

Is pride without profit, and robbeth thine hutch.

A very big thank you to Alison Sim for her wonderful book ‘The Tudor Housewife’ that has taught me so much about everyday life in Tudor England.

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Comments

  1. Another great article !!! Very intersting, I love reading about everyday Tudor life

  2. Oh, I want to get this book! It sounds wonderful and thank you for all the interesting stuff. Terrific info!

  3. Thank goodness I have a washing machine! I’m exhausted just reading this wonderful article!

    P.S. How are you hun with all the flooding in the Eastern States?

    • Thank you Sarah! I want to know all the details about life in Tudor England! Luckily, we aren’t affected by the floods here but poor QLD and VIC are having a terrible time. Hope life gets back to normal for them very soon x

  4. Thank You Natalie,

    I enjoy your website so very much! I love to learn anything about the Tudors. Your dedication to always having timely facts for us to read is so nice. I enjoyed everything from the holidays…to the duties of washing clothes …and the many authors that you interview. This single website brings me more enjoyment than you can imagine. Many times I read your website from a hospital bed. It is one of the few places I go for, an it brings me, complete escape!
    Dona Olds

    • Thank you Dona for your very kind words. I dedicate a lot of time and effort because of wonderful people like yourself. I have many more interesting articles and interviews coming up! Stay tuned :)

  5. Patty Blackwell says:

    Thanks again for another great article. Between your website and The Anne Boleyn Files, I continue to get my daily Tudor “fix”. I think that it is so interesting to not only learn about historical figures, but to learn how things were really done during their lifetimes. Loved the article.

  6. Tracey Burdus says:

    What an interesting article, love to read about the Tudor era. What fascinates me, is how long it must have taken to make the dresses, and clothes worn by the courts ladies and men, they look so detailed.

  7. Phew!! all that hard physical work for 2 tasks, washing dishes and doing laundry, I’ve got 2 machines for doing those things, we are so lucky and take so much for granted don’t we. How on earth they found time to do other stuff like prepare and cook meals, preserve food for winter, bring up lots of little ones, sew etc, etc…no nipping down to Asda for a ‘ping meal’ or a take-away, haha. It makes me feel so guilty, and lazy, moaning about the pile of ironing that needs doing. As we sit in our central heated homes with lighting at a flick of a switch, the Tudor period seems so idyllic, reading about those beautiful gowns, feasting and dancing, we tend to forget the ‘ordinary people’ who didn’t have maids and servants. Another great article Natalie.

  8. Is there a part 3 to Tudor hygiene Natalie?

  9. Something to note about dirt floors. My great grandparents lived in a home they built themselves with a split shingle roof & dirt floors here in Australia. My Mum told me that there was a way to make the floors rock hard over a period of time. I don’t know how, but apparently after some combination of sweeping & mopping the floor would become like stone. Mum said that my Great Grandma’s floors looked like black marble. I’ll bet this was something that had been common knowledge for quite a long time.

  10. Hi Leonie,
    I was interested by your comment and looked it up. I seems that some dirt floors were treated with what they call a ‘Drying Oil’ such as linseed, and it’s perhaps that, or something similar gave your Great Grandparents floor the marble shine.
    Apparently people that want to build totally Green and Enviromentally friendly homes now-a-days are having dirt (earthen) floors too! It’s strange how all things come full circle.

  11. Laura Jane Seagrave says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Ordinary Tudor women had such a tough time and it is good to hear about the trials of everyday life for such people rather than always focussing on the Gentry. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Laura! Lovely of you to drop by. It was certainly not an easy time to live in. Natalie

      • Did any one here watch the 6 part series on the BBC called ‘On the Tudor Monastery Farm’ at the end of last year?
        What an eye opener that was, every single thing was sooo time consuming, it is no wonder that every thing that they had/owned was looked after because of the laborious effort it would take to replace or re-new…we are so spoilt in our ‘throw-away’ society.

      • Laura Jane Seagrave says:

        Yes I saw it and loved it. Thought the team did brilliantly mastering so many skills and whilst hard work there was something lovely about a way of life that followed the seasons and the hours of daylight. Would be nice to see another programme giving insights into ‘ways of life’ both medieval and Tudor and Stuart

  12. Talar Asdourian says:

    Oh man, I’m glad they stopped using pee as bleach! This is such a cool article!

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