How these communal washhouses changed French culture

By any measure, Napoleon III had an impressive CV. Not only was he the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, but in the mid-1800s he became President of the Second French Republic and then, following a coup, Emperor of its Second Empire.

As emperor, he commissioned Baron Haussmann to create the Paris we know today, with its grand boulevards, bridges and parks.

What is less known is that, as part of an ambitious public health program to eradicate cholera and typhoid, he was also the driving force behind an institution that revolutionized the lives of the poor in France, and women in particular: the municipal laundry.

The versions of to see her appeared at the end of the 17th century, but it was Napoleon III who, in 1851, ordered their construction throughout the territory, accompanied by subsidies of up to 30% to help the municipalities provide them.

Although they are no longer in use, you still come across them, usually on the outskirts of a village or town.

They look like small swimming pools: rectangular, square or even oval, sometimes open, sometimes under a sheet metal or tile roof supported by wooden pillars.

They can be quite grand: built of stone in the style of classical temples.

In recent years, many have been restored by their municipalities as historical monuments of social significance.

Their design and location followed certain basic principles.

Most important was a source of clean, running water to ensure effective flushing. This has been secured by harnessing a spring, diverting a stream or even inserting the structure into the bank of a river. Sometimes they were actually in the river: laundry boats – laundry boats – were once familiar sights on the Seine and the Loire.

When constructing washhouses, the most important thing was a source of clean, running water to ensure effective rinsing. Former washhouse in the village of Legny en Beaujolais. Photo: ricochet64 / Shutterstock

The Pelvis – the basin or swimming pool – could either be a hole dug in the ground with scrubbing and threshing slabs arranged around the edge where the women would kneel, or, if the commune had the means, the “luxury” d a raised stone reservoir at which they could stand and work.

Some pools would be sectioned off, with the smaller part closer to the source for the final rinse. No one wanted to rinse downstream in someone else’s dirty water.

Whether kneeling or standing, it was hard physical labor in all weathers and often in freezing conditions, which in the days before rubber gloves left hands chapped and scratched.

“Wash house” can be a misleading translation. Although muddy or dusty clothes could be soaked in them before washing, laundries were mainly used for the second part of the laundry process: threshing and rinsing the laundry, followed by spinning and drying.

The actual washing of clothes – the serious task of soaking, boiling and stirring – was done at home.

Originally, families used a metal cauldron or a wooden tub, sometimes more than a meter in diameter. Soap was expensive and detergents unknown, but sifted wood ash from the grill was high in potash and offered an effective, free alternative.

Then, in the late 1800s, came a breakthrough: the lmushroom dipper. Brilliantly simple, it used the same principle as a coffee percolator.

The large galvanized bucket was heated from below and had a central tube through which hot water rose and emerged at the top through a perforated “mushroom” before cooling, descending and repeating the cycle.

Doing the laundry came to be seen in religious terms.

According to one version, the dirty laundry started in Hell (boiled in a copper), then spent time in Purgatory (beaten on a slab), and finally ascended to Heaven (rinsed, dried and bleached in the sun). But unlike the Church, only women were initiated into its mysteries. No surprise there.

With the ritual superstitions disappeared. Doing your laundry on Good Friday – or, in some parts of the country, any day of Holy Week – was like risking washing your own shroud. Many Britons believed that clothes washed on the day of a new moon would shrink.

Laundry in the village of Chevreuse. Photo: Pack-Shot / Shutterstock

The to see her did more than centralize washing in a public place.

It also introduced, or at least regularized, the notion of a weekly laundry day. Monday seems to have been preferred.

In medieval times, the practice was to wash large items such as sheets once a year, just after Easter. He became known as The Great Laundry.

This does not mean that people only change their sheets once a year. It is assumed that most families, certainly the most affluent, owned several devices.

In the early 1800s, The Big Wash was held two or even four times a year. Before washhousesthreshing and flushing was done either at the village fountain or at the nearest stream – a practice which in some areas continued well into the 1950s.

The to see her challenged a key tenet of social propriety: that one should not “wash dirty laundry in public”. The French often reverse the expression:Dirty laundry is washed as a family.” It is now used figuratively, but the original injunction was intended literally. After soaking and boiling at home, the laundry was taken to the to see her, where it would be exposed to the public gaze… and appreciation. Its quality, patches and stains speak volumes.

A regular user of to see her in Eymet, in Dordogne, remembers: “There would be more than 20 of us around the pools, and we helped each other wring out the sheets. At a glance, you could tell more about someone’s life from their wash than any speculation.

Even to be seen in the to see her was a statement, as it suggested that you could not afford to have your laundry professionally washed washerwoman.

Given the community nature of the activity, it was not long before the to see her made a reputation for Chatter Hotel – Central gossip.

Laundry in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. Photo: nomadkate/Shutterstock

It was the water fountain of its day.

The men had always had the bar or the cafe to discuss business and politics. By contrast, women were – for the most part – stuck at home cooking, cleaning and caring for children and elderly relatives. The washhouses changed that. For the first time, there was a place, a designated day, and a conducive atmosphere where women – and only women – could voice and share their grievances.

It’s tempting to wonder if French feminism was sparked by the washing of bras, long before anyone thought of burning them.

Positions around the basin were as jealously guarded as church seats and a frequent source of friction.

Eighty centimeters was considered the minimum width and there was a pecking order, with older people being preferred. Even so, women would often arrive early to secure a spot, only to be met with a later arrival claiming it was hers, and always had been. To enforce the rules, some municipalities have had to appoint a head waiter.

France washhouses served for more than a century.

Two things sounded the death knell: piped water directly into homes during the first half of the 20th century and, in the 1960s, affordable household washing machines.

Even so, some washhouses were still used to rinse sheets in the 1970s.

This article owes a lot to the French site and his excellent series ‘The washhouses of Périgord

Related stories:

The story of the Paris water fountains donated by a British donor in the 1870s

If the walls could talk: an Anglo-French group delves into the history of houses

French architecture: the Pont du Gard is the most visited Roman site in the country

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