Nineteenth-century New Orleanians shared our need for clean clothes. A note in the Louisiana Advertiser newspaper of December 5, 1826 offered a much-needed service: “To hire: a good Creole washer-woman, cook, etc. speaks French and a little English. Enquire at this office…”
Then, as now, you could do the washing, or hire someone to do it on the premises, or send it out to be done. Some things never change.
An ingenious New Orleans promoter in the 1830s promised a solution to the problem: a mechanical laundry. On August 23, 1838, The Picayune noted: “An ingenious machine for perfecting, facilitating, and economizing the process of washing has been invented by Dr. Plough. We advise housekeepers, and especially laundresses, to examine it.”
During the late 1830s, Dr. Azzo Lewis Plough, a dentist and native of Holland, operated a “museum” of curiosities in New Orleans and had already designed a plan for the city to improve its cemeteries. Cleanliness was on the doctor’s mind. In 1837, Plough had incorporated the Colonnade Bath and Institute of New Orleans, “an extensive bathing establishment with which are to be connected apartments for the occupancy of various literary and scientific institutions.” Neither his cemetery plan nor the bath house were completed. Of his miraculous laundry machine, there are no plans available or reports of its successful operation.
Meanwhile, New Orleans families coped with the washing as best they could. In the years before mechanical dryers, clothes were hung outside to dry. The usual local method of keeping the clothesline in the air was a “clothes pole.” This was a long, straight stick with a hook (where branches had been lopped off.) In French, clothes poles were “des perches.” They were sold by street vendors who walked around the neighborhoods crying their wares.
Lafcadio Hearn (later famous for collecting Japanese folklore and best known here for his short novel “Chita” about an 1856 hurricane destroying the resort on Isle Derniere) was a reporter for the Daily Item when he penned a piece on August 30, 1880, about the clothes pole man:
“Des Perches! …the words chanted in ancient Creole patois — And we, listening to the cry, gave ourselves up to solemn meditation; Dreaming of the cries of anguish that arise when a clothes-line, heavily burdened with its snowy freight, falleth upon the mud…It is to avoid these things that men should buy clothes-poles.”
Clothes lines often appeared in the police reports: “Thieves scaled the fence of Mrs. Bardis’ residence on White near Dumaine St. and filched a lot of clothes valued at $18 from the clothes line,” the Picayune reported March 21, 1886. Two neighboring women squabbled over clothes on the line attached to their shared fence, and one took an axe and cut her neighbor’s clothes line, resulting in a damage suit for $24 filed April 23, 1852, reported the Picayune.
Perhaps the worst clothesline offense was chronicled in the Picayune, June 18, 1870, when “the chief Clerk of the Police Board was robbed of a large quantity of wearing apparel by the police officer on the beat in front of his residence at 460 Annunciation St.” The victim awoke during the night to discover “a policeman in full uniform quietly gathering up linen from the clothesline.”
Early on, boiling water on the stove all day was necessary for washing. Clothes were put in the hot water, sometimes with homemade soap (kitchen fat mixed with the lye skimmed off the top when hardwood ashes were boiled.)
Simmering a pot of beans on the hot stove while doing laundry makes sense, as does the local custom of red beans and rice on Mondays (wash day!)