My So-Called Pilgrim Life

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A chronicle of daily life in the 1627 English village at Plimoth Plantation from both a modern and historical perspective.

Pilgrims Cleaning Up-17th Century Laundry Tools

October 22nd, 2008 by admin

The role-playing staff in the 1627 English Village is doing a fabulous job representing the washing or ‘bucking’ of linens in the period.  They have done a number of experiments with this process and this year have chosen a site near a water source, which is a more accurate place to do this task. It makes it easier to access the water for heating it and rinsing the linens. Not only is it a wonderful period place for the staff to do their work, but as the location of the new entrance to our English site our visitors are often greeted by the role-players going about their daily business, doing a chore that all people can relate to!

This photo of Shelley Jo and Rebecca wringing linens by the spring makes us realize how easy we have it these days with washing machines and dryers, but the role-players look fabulous, like a painting come to life with the heat of the fire, the smoke and steam rising off the linens, possing about in the spring – with strength and ease they make a difficult task look beautiful!

(We recently changed our visitation pattern, having our visitors start their visit at the Wampanoag Indigenous Program, then walk along the Eel River and enter the Village by a side gate. The new route allows visitors to experience the culture of the Wampanoag People who have lived on this land for hundreds of generations, before encountering the newly established English colony.)

Justin mentioned in an earlier posting that the research for the laundry or bucking process was done as part of a presentation I did for The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife: Women’s Work in New England, 1620-1920. On the presentation of the paper in June 2001, I had still not figured out the period name of the tool for the step in the bucking process that Randle Holme described as ‘Batting, or beating cloths to get the Bucking Stuff out’ (Academy of Armory, 1688). Edward Pinto, a modern writer, refers to this type of implement as a ‘bat’ in his book Treen and other wooden bygones, (London: G.Bell and Sons, ltd. 1969, p.), but I could not find corresponding period terminology in any source or in the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest reference to a bat for laundry was the 19th century.  So when the article was first presented and published, I went along with the term ‘bat’. I had a number of visual references for a flat, square-ish, handled ‘bat’ with a short handle and have been on the lookout for what that washing implement should be called in the 1627 English Village.

The first possible reference of something related to this tool was mentioned in Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife.  He reviews the process of beating hemp to soften it and make it pliant. The tool he suggests using are ‘beetles’.  Here is the full reference:

41 Of beating hemp

After the second swingling of your hemp, and that the hards thereof have been laid by, you shall take the strikes, and, dividing them into dozens, or half dozens, make them up into great thick rolls, and then as it were broaching them or spitting them upon long sticks, set them in the corner of some chimney, where they may receive the heat of the fire, and there let them abide, till they be dried exceedingly, then take them, and, laying them in a round trough made for the purpose, so many as may conveniently lie therein, and there with beetles beat them exceedingly, till they handle both without and within as soft and pliant as may be, without any hardness or roughness to be felt or perceived; then take them from the trough, and open the rolls, and divide the strikes severally as at the first, and if any be insufficiently beaten, roll them up, and beat them over as before.
(The English Housewife. Gervase Markham. ED. By Michael R. Best. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1986. p. 159)

Of course Markham is not talking about the washing of the hemp, but, the term ‘beetle’ is related to manufacturing cloth and with a little searching in the OED there is a reference to a beetle used for washing and also specifically a ‘washing-beetle’.  Then washing-beetle led me to battle-dore and I searched for a visual image of a beetle or battledore in Randle Holme’s Academy of Amory. After Justin’s posting I took a harder look at some of these references.

The first reference to ‘beetle’ as possibly used in the washing and linen process is:

1608 in N. Riding Qr. Sessions Rec. (1884) I. 136 Betling.& stretchinge three webbes of lynnen cloth, etc.(OED. Beetle, v2)

The next are for ‘washing-beetle’:

c1440 Promp. Parv. 517/2 *Waschynge betyl, or batyldore, feritorium. c1566 Merie Tales of Skelton in S.’s Wks. (1843) I. p. lxiii, Skelton..sayd to the wyfe, Geue me a washyng betle. a1625 FLETCHER Woman’s Prize II. v, Have I liv’d thus long to be knockt o’th head, With halfe a washing beetle? (OED. Washing, vbl.n.)

So following up the 1440 reference that calls it a ‘Waschynge betyl, or batyldore’ I searched then for battledore and found these references:

c1440 Promp. Parv. 27 Batyldoure, or wasshynge betylle, feretorium
c1555 HARPSFIELD Divorce Hen. VIII (1878) 276 [She] all to beat her yokemate with a wash~beetle or battledore. 1617 F. MORISON Itin. I. 11 Boats of a hollow tree, battledores. (OED battledore,n, 1)

The 1617 reference above suggests the boat is driven by some type of paddle, presumably flat at one end. Another OED reference suggests a ‘batyldore’ is shaped like a hornbook:

1693 W. ROBERTSON Phraseol. Gen. 215 A battledore book, or Horn-book (OEDBattledore,n,3)

The term that most defines the flat, square-ish tool with the short handle in the period illustrations is the ‘batyldore’. The above terms suggest that the batyldore is a word for a flat-ended implement like an oar and a horn book.  Randle Holme’s version refers to a game of shuttlecock and the ‘battle-dore’ used to hit it. He describes it as ‘a flatt peece of wood of some made round, other ovall, but the gentilest way is to make them top like, the better sort of gentry haue them couered with Leather and gilt on the back side like to a childs horne booke. With this Instrument the Shuttle cock is tossed vp and downe.’ His illustration looks like a slightly elongated ping-pong paddle  and a rounded version of the square-ish laundry bat illustrated in the period sources. (from Randle Holme Academy of Armory. Games  Book III, Chapter 16, Section 2.) There is also a wonderful drawing of ‘Two Women Playing Battledore and Shuttlecock’ in Adriaen van de Venne’s Album by Martin Royalton-Kisch. (Amsterdam: Prins Bernhard Fonds, 1988. For the British Museum Publication Ltd.)

On the other hand, Randle Holme’s illustrations of beetles look like a type of mallet with the “length of it as long, if not longer than the handle” While some mallets have round heads, others square heads, Holme specifically notes that this tool’s head is eight-sided.

So it is quite possible that there are two implements for batting and beating the laundry, or it really may be that the two terms mean one item. Until we find more evidence the term that seems to fit the flat square-ish tool best is ‘batyldore or battle-dore’.

Another challenge was deciding about the reproduction battledores for use in the English Village. We had an idea about the general shape, but what about the size, proportions, etc? Working just from some rather vague descriptions and equally non-descript artwork leaves a lot to be desired. As it happened, we literally stumbled upon a seventeenth-century example while on a research trip to England.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to England on a material culture tour with Victor Chinnery a noted 17th-cenutry furniture historian and author of Oak Furniture: The British Tradition.  He and his wife Jan are well known for their work in recreating 16th and 17th century British interiors (Their work is similar to what I do at Plimoth Plantation), most notably Shakespeare Birthplace Trust at Stratford-upon-Avon. The Chinnerys lead the ‘re-presentation’ of the Birthplace in April 2000. The rooms are furnished as accurately as possible to recreate the interiors as they might have been in the 1570s and include a glover’s workshop. They have also been instrumental in the preservation and restoration of The Merchant’s House, Marlborough, Wiltshire. This house museum was the home of Thomas Bayly, a middleclass silk merchant. Bayly had the house built in 1653, following a fire that destroyed much of the High Street in Marlborough.

It was at the Merchant’s House that we saw the period example of a battledore. Peter Follansbee, Joiner at Plimoth Plantation, also on this tour, said…

“We saw this laundry bat on a trip to England in 2004. Victor Chinnery was showing us the restored Merchant’s House in Marlborough, Wiltshire. While poking around the upstairs rooms, looking at furniture, books and other things, we noticed this paddle sitting on a table. When we asked Vic what this was, he off-handedly replied ‘Oh, one of those things for beating laundry…’” as if you saw them everyday.

It’s made of oak, the working end is about 7”x10” and it’s carved all over with geometric chip carving on both faces. The side view shows the thickness, only about 3/4”. If you squint right, it is dated 1649 on the handle.”

We have chosen to reproduce simple, plain batyldores like those in the period illustrations, for our exhibits in the 1627 English Village. Peter has made a couple to get the exhibit going. We are a little leery of representing an item like the chip carved example.  Although it is beautiful and artistic in our modern minds, we’re not quite sure that someone would employ these simple though specialized craft talents during the first years at Plimoth Plantation.

I will continue to post information about the material culture of the colonists and new information about 17th century laundering and washing that was not published in the Dublin Seminar Proceedings.

- Maureen Richard, Curator of the Colonial Reproductions Collection

If you are interested in purchasing The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife: Women’s Work in New England, 1620-1920 it is available by calling our mail order department 508-746-1622 x8332.

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2 Responses to “Pilgrims Cleaning Up-17th Century Laundry Tools”

  1. tim says:


    what a great blog nice picture you guys got that going too. what a subject lundry what a subject most hate this but you have made it interesteding and we hate doing it in a machine not the old way by hand.

  2. Drea Leed says:

    What a great post! Many thanks for the image of that 17th c. washing paddle, what a great find. There’s also a photo of a late 16th c/early 17th c. one in the book Textiler Hausrat by Jutta Zander-Seidel.

    Have you ever seen this picture?
    It’s c. 1530s, and German, but is a great depiction of general early modern laundering processes.

    I’ve done considerable research into Renaissance textile cleaning techniques but haven’t put my research into action. I’m curious as to the strength of the lye you used for the bucking tub–do you have details? Was the tub on rockers? How big was it?

    Here’s a recipe for laundry day (German, late 15th c) that may interest you–it’s a bit early, but very similar to 17th c. processes.

    “If you want to wash an undergown, take
    three measures of ashes and put them in a
    great open vessel and pour first hot boiling
    water thereon and then cold water so that the
    vessel is full and let it become strong [alkaline], and sieve it then through a cloth and dunk the gown
    therein and wash it when cool, otherwise it
    will be yellow, and rub it well with soap on
    the collar and the sleeves, and where it is
    sweaty. If you think that the lye solution is
    too strong, mix it well with water or pour
    more water on the ashes and mix it with the

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