As a colonial role-player in the English Village, my work involves an esoteric assortment of skills. In the course of the day I kindle fires, assist with building construction, work with rare breed animals, raise heirloom vegetables, weed back-bred 17th century corn, cook the odd pottage, talk in a regional English dialect, etc, etc. In order to best represent the farming community of New Plymouth, village staff engage in the same sort of work and activities carried out by the English in 1627. While cooking, gardening, and house building have been exhibited in front of the public for years, within the last four seasons we’ve been developing another exhibit, that of household laundry.
In 2001, Maureen Richard, our Curator of Reproductions, researched and wrote a paper on washing household linens in 1627 Plymouth which was published in The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife: Women’s Work in New England 1620-1920. This paper compiled a number of early 17th century sources on washing linen in Early Modern England, and is a handy resource for the interpretive staff wishing to explain to visitors how we think laundry was carried out in New Plymouth. With the acquisition and creation of a reproduction wooden ‘bucking’ tub, ‘washing beetles’, and benches, we have been able to put into practice the written evidence from the 17th century.
Although a heap of work, this exhibit is particularly exciting for staff and visitors alike. Most of the work happens at our village’s recreated spring, a feature that is often overlooked by visitors, but one of the most unique about our site. We are privileged to have access at our museum to a historically accurate water source that we can use with visitors. The linens being washed are napkins, sheets, towels, smocks, and shirts that have been soiled through real use on site. When put out to dry, visitors find not just table linens, but actual clothes. We do our best to create a sense of a personal, cohesive, working community, and what’s more personal than someones underwear?
We hope you’ll be able to join us and help air out our dirty laundry! Like all of our activities, they come and go with the seasons and the weather, so come back soon and help the colonial staff work through another year in 1627.
*Blue Monday refers to the later practice of doing laundry exclusively on Monday, and ‘blueing’, a light rinse of indigo or other blue pigment on white cloth to create an optical illusion making the cloth appear whiter. There is no evidence that either was done in the early 17th century, and the earliest reference to the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1801.