Washing clothes

None of the fresh water was available for washing clothing or linen. Passengers either washed their clothing in sea water, generally only on one or two designated days each week (always weather permitting), or they gathered rain water in buckets or from the sails for washing. They either supplied their own soap, (and did their best to keep it safe from rats,) or sometimes the captain would supply soap for a fee.

All passengers were advised before sailing to pack sufficient clothing and linen for the first month separately, while the remainder was packed in boxes and secured in the hold. At intervals during the voyage (weather permitting) the captain would allow access to the hold, but this was not easily done.  Members of the crew were required to move boxes and re-stow them afterwards and, since the holds could be very dark, lighting had to be very carefully supervised to guard against fire – the overriding fear on every wooden sailing vessel.  We can only imagine what the state of the passengers on either the John Pirie, or the Duke of York was like after seven weeks at sea in such appalling weather.  We know that the holds were not opened on either ship until they returned to port after the terrible storm at the end of March.

Washing clothing was not necessarily a simple business in the 1830s, even on land. While underclothing and linen was made of either cotton or linen and generally washed well, outer clothing was not always designed to be washed at all. Silk washes quite well in ordinary circumstances, although it requires careful ironing, and ironing was unlikely to be easy on board – if, indeed, it was possible at all.  We have found no reference to it. Irons at this time had to be heated directly on stoves and applied while still hot. Stoves had to be scrupulously clean to avoid marking clean clothing with smuts.  It is unlikely that the ships galleys were either sufficiently clean, or actually accessible, to women wishing to iron.

Much outer clothing at this time was made of woolen fabrics, many of which were not designed to be washed. People changed their underwear, (although far less frequently than we do,) but continued to wear outer clothing for very lengthy periods. Cotton fabrics had been increasingly popular for summer clothing from the early eighteenth century, and the more prosperous passengers undoubtedly owned cotton or linen dresses, but many emigrant women probably only owned one or two dresses in total, and they were unlikely to be cotton. Similarly men’s suiting was almost always made of wool, unless they had lived for extended periods in warmer climates.  Even some underwear was made of woolen fabrics, often flannel, which may or may not have been washable.  It was common to air outer clothing regularly on land, which presumably helped to dispel body odours somewhat, but this cannot have been possible at sea.  We can only imagine!

Children’s clothing on the other hand, was often made of cotton fabrics, for obvious reasons.  Warmth for children was generally accomplished by adding layers – of [tooltip color=”grey” text=”A closely woven woolen fabric, used mainly for underwear and infants’ pilchers.”] flannel [/tooltip] underwear or woolen coats or shawls.  We know that many women attached great importance to dressing their children in clean clothing and there is some evidence that they saw this as important for health as well as for maintaining a respectable appearance. Some went to great lengths to achieve this on board ship, although they could not always secure their children’s health.  Children were the most vulnerable of nineteenth century travelers.

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