When our National Anthem is considered, one probably thinks of the soldiers bravely firing cannons on a cold dark night in September or the British shooting off rockets and mortars over the fort. However, often overlooked are the women who worked to support the soldiers. We will discuss more of these roles in future posts, but one of the roles that best supported those stationed at Fort McHenry were the laundresses.
The role of laundress was held by both poor white women and free black women equally. They were women from Baltimore and worked in one of the first government contract jobs for women. They were paid for each piece of laundry they did.
At the time laundry was a way of keeping the soldiers healthy and clean. Because while the men were expected to be bathed and shaven regularly, there were also concerns at the time about bathing. So laundry was a critical part of keeping the soldiers healthy.
The process of laundry is a fascinating one. I have had the privilege to help the living history interpreters at Fort McHenry (being part of the guard myself) with laundry. It is an all day process. It starts with spot treatments, then soaking and scrubbing the clothes, then the whites get boiled over the fire and then rinsed in cold water and run through a process of bluing and then laid out to dry on the grass in the sun to dry or hung on a wash line. Then colored clothes follow similar steps except they only get cold rinsed and then laid out to dry.
Having had the opportunity to help with this process it helps me to better understand some of the everyday chores of the time period and the roles women play in supporting troops.
While they talks mostly about laundresses of the 1830's, I highly recommend looking at Fort Scott National Historic Site's pages about Laundresses as they give information about the tools of the trade as well as the prices that the laundresses' could have charged for the different mending jobs necessary.
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