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Laundry Day


Alison Sofield, Volunteer Collections


Today we are going to investigate three very ordinary and common place items of domestic use that can give a more accurate picture of earlier times in New Zealand, compared to more exotic and rare objects. These items are all related to laundering procedures of the early 20th century- the days of the indoor or even out door coppers and rope clothes lines where the line was held up to clear the ground with a long wooden prop. Thank goodness for today’s modern washers and dryers. The three items I have selected are wooden clothes pegs, a bar of sandsoap, and a washboard.


The wooden pegs are reputed to have been made by hand by gypsies in England either late 19th or early 20th century. The pegs consist of two wooden arms held together by a metal band to provide some tension. No doubt brought to New Zealand by settlers, a precious commodity when so much of what this new country could provide was unknown. Inventors in America were already patenting a wooden spring peg by about 1860. The plastic peg didn’t come till much later. A company known as Sunshine Plastics set up in New Zealand in 1983 making amongst other things plastic pegs and is still going strong today. Now there are even environmentally friendly, long-lasting stainless steel pegs on the market, though fairly expensive even if you are a laundry enthusiast.


The next item is a bar of sandsoap known as “Electric”, still in its original wrapper. This sandsoap was made by Warnock Brothers of Auckland, at one time the largest manufacturer of soap items in New Zealand. They dealt as well in wool scouring, leather tanning and the processing of copra from the Pacific islands.


The sandsoap is made from melted down soap and crushed pumice. There are rather extravagant claims to its efficacy on the packaging e.g. “The best is the cheapest and inferior is dear at any price. When purchasing see that our name is on the bars. Beware of those who offer worthless imitations. Our sandsoap contains more soap than any other and is therefore a cleanser as well as a scourer.”


The last item is a wooden washboard. Americans have always believed that washboards originated in their country, however there is a school of thought that insists these boards came originally from either Norway or Finland in the 1800s. Washboards may have developed from “Washing bats” with handles similar to the butter pats used to shape butter. The boards, usually constructed within a rectangular wooden frame inside which  was mounted a series of wooden corrugations which the clothing could be rubbed over. Must have caused a lot of wear and tear on garments. By the 20th century, ridges of metal were more common. Upmarket washboards even sported glass ridges. Many parts of the world still use washboards, especially where people usually women, have access to rivers for washing and rinsing.


With the advent of mechanical washing machines in 1920s and the introduction of electric washing machines in 1930s, the washboard has largely been relegated to being a curiosity.


Happily the modern person responsible for the washing of clothes spends far less time in the laundry, which I for one am very grateful for.