Monday used to be laundry day in New York City

I’d seen this 1900 image of sheets, shirts, and undergarments hanging between rows of New York tenements before. But I never noticed the caption, “A Monday’s Washing.”

Was Monday the city’s official laundry day? Apparently it was a traditional day to do the hard work of washing clothes, as this excerpt from Tyler Anbinder’s book about the city’s notorious 19th century slum, Five Points, explains.

“Hard wash-days”—typically Mondays—provided some of the most unpleasant memories for tenement housewives such as those in Five Points,” wrote Anbinder.

“They first made numerous trips up and down the stairs to haul water up from the yard. Then they heated the water on the stove and set to work scrubbing.”

“Drying the wash was actually the most dreaded task. . . .The advantage of living on a low floor (with fewer flights of stairs to climb) became a disadvantage on wash day, because when hanging your laundry out to dry, ‘someone else might put out a red wash or a blue wash over it, and it drips down and makes you do your wash all over again.'”

[Top postcard: LOC; second image: Mott Street; third image: Minetta Lane, via MCNY x2010.11.2570]

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28 Responses to “Monday used to be laundry day in New York City”

  1. Monday used to be laundry day in New York City ⋆ New York city blog Says:

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  2. papershots Says:

    very interesting post. for some reason, the first image doesn’t really look like New York at first glance… strange..

  3. Monday used to be laundry day in New York City | Real Estate Marketplace Says:

    […] Source: FS – NYC Real Estate Monday used to be laundry day in New York City […]

  4. Zoé Says:

    This has me remembering that only about thirty/forty years ago a lot of New Yorkers still hung laundry out like this. When you rode the train in from CT & back you would have a better view of courtyards & could see rows of hanging laundry.

    I guess more people that did wash at home got dryers since then. And more landlords put dryers in building laundry rooms for tenants. And more people went to laundromats.

    I hung my laundry up when I lived in the City but inside on hangers on my shower rod. (Even better if one has the circular kind surrounding the old clawfoot tubs). I live in a small loft now & still do that. (Out of choice – then & now – for my clothing & the environment).

    I went to look at a huge prewar building in Crown Heights in the late 80s/early 90s & the agent took me downstairs to the cellar to see the laundry room (which was pretty small given the size of the building w/ about a dozen machines – ?). What amazed me was the ocean of large separate empty rooms w/ disused laundry lines still hanging in some. I didn’t move in because it seemed so unsafe; so I thought that people then must have felt the same. They probably went down in pairs or more to hang & retrieve their washing.

    Monday was washing day all over the States & in Western & Northern Europe. (Roma in Eastern Europe & also places in Asia do washing every morning vs. letting it pile up). Tuesday was for ironing (& Wednesday for mending?).

    My mother spent the first eleven years of her life in an old apartment in Berlin. (Later they had a house there). She said they did wash in a huge copper pot on the stove. (They had running water though). A washerwoman came to help my grandmother & mother. My mum said her hands were calloused & red & raw. (The woman’s hands – as she did that for other people & probably on other days other than Monday).

    I still feel sad for this woman. It was the lowest paid/lowest skilled job a woman could have then. I think about her a lot. What that was like for the three of them. Including the relationship. Or lack thereof (?).

    Lotte Lenya’s (singer & wife of Kurt Weil) mother took in washing to their Vienna apartment. Lotte (Carolina then) slept on a board on the tub in the kitchen at night. In the day her mother needed the tub & kitchen for washing customer’s laundry so Carolina had to stay outside the building. That is how she got propositioned by an older man as an eleven year old girl. Before she soon after went to Switzerland & became a dancer. Thank God for the latter or her life would have continued down this *very* dark road.

    I read that in Paris many washerwomen were also prostitutes – as they could not make enough from washing alone. (I’m not sure if it is true. I think I read that in relation to something re. Degas’ paintings & the dancers who were also sometimes propositioned).

    I guess a lot of tubs in NYC kitchens produced the billowing linens & clothes shown in the photos here.

    I still wash my clothes & linens by hand; only not with boiling water & lye etc. I simply throw things in cold water w/ liquid enzyme baby soap & let it soak for a few hours before rinsing it. No scrubbing. It’s really simple. It’s great for the environment… & fabric. There’s a whole movement now to do away w/ those anti-clothesline laws. There is a website etc. Bring back the clothesline!

    • Zoé Says:

      PS: I forgot to mention. After the washing by hand – in Berlin apartment houses then (1920s) – they hung things in the attic. It was warm & dry there; whereas outside things would freeze – most of the year. But in NYC we have those flat roofs & no attics – thus laundry was hung in cellars or outside.

    • Zoé Says:

      Sorry for the novel!

  5. alaspooryorick Says:

    not too long for me Zoe. the “hinter hof” of Berlin was used? In Germany (perhaps still) machines had a “cook wash” setting with near boiling water. tried it recently on stove, got out a ton of schmutz.

    attention paid to the mercilessly hard work done by women, nearly unnoticed, is welcomed. NYC outlawed hanging clothes out in public view, or so i was told.

    • Zoé Says:


      Clever screen name! (Lol – or that is on your birth certificate). So interesting about the setting on the German machines. I never knew that. (My mum came to the States post WWII as a DP & nobody was buying washing machines before then during the war. Or after in the rubble). Of what age machines?

      They used to boil the whites my mum said (& unlike in the States the sheets were/are linen not cotton – still when I lived in Italy 1980s – so last forever). And in summer they let the sun bleach stains out of whites. As soon as bleach became available all of that ended. (It did for my mum anyway!).

      Coloured clothes & delicate silks & wool just got washed in cool water & plain grated soap. Then they rinsed things in water w/ vinegar for a mordant (= chem to keep dyes colourfast). And also because the plain shaved soap left a residue eventually; which the vinegar cuts through.

      Re. ‘women’s work’. In America Chinese men were prohibited from occupations which ‘took work away from men’ (the racist accusation which we still hear today!). So the only jobs they could have in cities & towns was the worst job formerly done by women: laundry. Prior to 19th c. Chinese immigration there were the hired laundresses (washerwomen) described. I learned that w/ the invention of the sewing machine – women got seamstress jobs & other mill & factory jobs; so Chinese men opened these laundries to fill their place. That’s what I learned from documentaries & some reading. (Please correct me if I’m wrong. My Lebanese family came under the Asian Exclusion Law – so I read a lot about that). The other job they were allowed was cooking establishments. Hence the restaurants. (This is also the reason why a lot of Syrian/Lebanese immigrants then were peddlars & then opened their own businesses).

      When was the clothesline law enacted? 1980s? Those laws are even in the country also now. They are terrible for the environment. Lol – I am virulently anti-dryer!

      ‘20,000 Years of Women’s Work’ is an amazing book. (? I think that’s the name. If not I’ll post a correction here). For years male archeologists & anthros just threw whatever ancient fragile linen & weaving & embroidery & knitted objects etc. in disused places in museums without even bothering to catalog them or study them.

      In the 1970s there were finally more female archeologists & anthros & historians who discovered these previously ignored treasures in museums & began to study them & link that knowledge to linguistic findings etc. Hence the title of the book.

      As you may have gathered I am a bit obsessed w/ fabric & cloth & needlework & washing & the lives of our ancestors!

    • Zoé Says:

      *I did have that title wrong. It’s ‘Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years’ by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1996)

      Her other books are amazing also.

      • Zoé / Hayat Says:

        My apology Ephemeral – for the link I posted to the book which created an image of the cover inc. obnoxious ‘buy now’ option as part of that. I had no clue that would happen; I thought I was just posting a URL. (Which I won’t do from now on to commercial book sites. I haven’t named the *huge* online company that did this here; as typing their name again may trigger some other obtrusive ad from them!).

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        No apology necessary! Book covers are fine by me.

  6. burkemblog Says:

    Fascinating–when I was in college at the Virginia Military Institute 1969-73, Mondays were the day we sent our laundry out to the campus laundry, and hung our mattresses and blankets out to air. So Monday washdays were not just a New York City phenomenon.

  7. Tom B Says:

    Even though they were dirt poor, they made an attempt to stay clean.
    I just did a load of whites and hanging them outside now. It is sunny and 70 in Florida.

    • Zoé Says:

      Lol. Must you torture those of us who live in a replica of Fritz Lang’s underworld Metropolis – with talk of ‘sunny’? 🙂

      Apparently you don’t have the fascistic anti-clothesline laws in FL. Which should be abolished for the sake of the environment.

      As mentioned in my comment above my mother came here as a DP (Displaced Person) from postwar Berlin. She was hanging laundry in our back garden in CT & a neighbour crossed the acre & one half of our land to tell my mother “We don’t hang out our laundry here”. My mum told her that it was a “free country” & she didn’t survive Nazi fascism to be told not to hang her own laundry in her own private back garden. Lol.

      Funnily wealthy people & even landed nobles etc. in Europe – hung laundry out of doors. Usually in a little walled in door garden etc. It’s not like she was hanging it in front of the house…

      lol… I Love Lucy episode w/ clotheslines inside the NYC flat…

      After we bring back clotheslines we need to work on turning all that wasted gardening space – AKA ‘lawns’ & ‘grass’ – into beautifully landscaped vegetable gardens.

  8. Gail Fanelli Says:

    in the 60’s we dried our clothes on a line on the roof.

  9. alaspooryorick Says:

    zoe-yr mom’s comment: right on. bravo.

    novel “the blue flower” (abt romantic poet Novalis) describes yearly wash day. those with long established lineage (not necessarily wealthy) owned sufficient linen to last that long.

    • Zoé Says:

      Yes alaspooryorick – I heard the “free country” phrase a lot from my mum! Berliners – like New Yorkers – are pretty ‘free’ thinkers anyway. (Being polite here… ‘headstrong’ comes to mind also… lol…). Loved that bit about her.

      Wow – I miss linen sheets from my childhood. (My grandmother must have brought them from Germany when my mum finally brought her parents over). I’d forgotten about them until this thread. They last forever but get softer & softer from washing… & endless ironing! They feel softer than cotton. Cotton sheets are cooler as they are thinner. (A plus in NYC & a lot of other places in the States).

      Perhaps some Europeans can tell us if linen sheets are still in use there anymore. (They were when I stayed in Sicily w/ my in laws in the 80s. But maybe they had them forever also!).

      Lol – I never iron sheets (or duvet covers) – does anyone anymore? (I’m born in the 60s if it explains that). Since I hang everything up they’re not wrinkled. (Another reason to hang things beside the environment).

  10. 1968nyc Says:

    I’ve been a fan of this blog for a long time and recently started my own. It’s a block-by-block look at a film of a walk through Manhattan in 1968. Hopefully it will be interesting to you and your readers.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I can’t think of anything cooler than clicking on your page and seeing an old Chock Full o Nuts store sign! Thanks for sending this link and I look forward to more posts.

    • Tom B Says:

      Enjoyed the 1968 video. I did the B Bridge. Recognized approaching Bryant Park and all the way to the boat pond. Walked that area of mid-town many times. A little dirtier then, but people looked nice.

  11. Catharine Zivkovic (@ccziv) Says:

    Fantastic thread! Thanks, all.

  12. David H Lippman Says:

    My grandmother remembered doing that right into the 1950s, when she finally got the washer and dryer.

    • Zoé Says:

      Lol – love it Mr.David H.Lippman! (In a comment here I wrote how I do that NOW. The environment People! I don’t expect that everyone wants to read my comments – forward slash – dissertations)

  13. deltilogical Says:

    In the East Village if I put out laundry to dry it would get coated with a layer of grease from all the restaurant kitchen exhausts.

    • Zoé Says:

      Deltilogical – When I lived in that neighbourhood (on E.1rst at 2nd Ave w/ Houston behind our building) my whole apartment would be covered w/ soot from the burned out building next door w/ it’s cavernous *not* boarded up windows facing mine.

      My clothes all had black stripes at the shoulders/hangers. In Andy Warhol A to B he (or his Factory workers) wrote that in NY you just clean all the time to keep things *not dirty* – vs getting them clean.

      I think the massive trucks rolling by on Second Ave to Houston in those pre lead law days did not help either. The windows were coated w/ a diabolical film & had to be washed w/ feldspar soap – like Bon Ami. (Which we did ourselves then People – LES landlords did next to nothing then unless it was court ordered). This was in the early 1980s btw – not the early1880s.

      Fans of Ephemeral will be happy to know that the beautiful burnt out large corner prewar apartment building (not a tenement) was purchased from the City (for a dollar?) & renovated & still stands. Happy ending.

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