History of Laundry

Edwina Atlee will present her paper: Laundry / and the limits of economic rationality.

Being clean is an essential part of going to work and of leaving the house. The wives and daughters of pit workers knew this only too well. Their laundering, unlike that of their contemporaries, took place daily: ‘girls were expected to have hot water ready to fill the tin bath on the return of the miners, to wash out and dry their “flappers” (trunks) and to beat out the dust from all the pit-clothes by dashing them against a wall, after which they were folded in a set order ready for the next shift. Finally the pit boots were greased and softened with melted tallow. In some areas daughters also scrubbed the men’s backs, apparently without embarrassment.’ This is the kind of work that causes Luce Irigaray to write about women as infrastructure and Silvia Federici to say that housework is money for capital. And this is not a quirk of history: we should remember Ruth Schwartz-Cowans’ assertion that all of the developed economies of the world depend on the unpaid work of housewives; all of them, whether they are capitalist, socialist or mixed economies.

The girl in Arnold’s picture (above) works as a secretary, she is unmarried and divides her free time between home and ‘going out’. She thinks it wonderful to be asked out for supper because it means not having to eat much for lunch. She earns between £9 and £12 a week and shares the cost of the flat with the other girls. She gets help from her parents with money for clothes and extras. She loves living with the girls, and doesn’t even mind if the bathroom is occupied when she’s getting ready for a date. She is able to care for herself in her free time, she can take pleasure in the shared housework. The image suggests another aspect of clothes washing – it suggests that washing done alone or in the company of women is different to that done in public or close to men. This difference is key to this research: where washing gets put, and where the people who do it are positioned – in homes, cities and society – is a question that demands our attention because of what it reveals about distinctions made between good work and bad, paid and unpaid, valued and undervalued. This difference shows how laundry work approaches what André Gorz describes as ‘the limits of economic rationality’.

Image: Eve Arnold, One of three girls sharing a flat in Knightsbridge

A woman having a bath


Date/time Thursday 30 April 2020 at 6.30pm
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The Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design (The Cass)
London Metropolitan University
Room GSG-15, Goulston Street Building

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Cass Research Seminar 2019-20