Laundry: The Primary Occupation of Followers

February 28th, 2024 News and Events


“The multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement”. When George Washington’s general orders on August 4th of 1777 stated these harsh words, his army had already greatly suffered before the start of the Philadelphia campaign. Arthur St. Clair’s retreat from Fort Ticonderoga in July of 1777 lowered morale as another valuable military defense was lost. Washington was desperate to keep his army together. He followed General Howe’s movements closely, as British warships left New York City and hugged the Atlantic coast. A battle for Philadelphia seemed inevitable. With supplies scarce and the need to move his troops nimbly in defense of Philadelphia, Washington was feeling the pressure of the extra mouths to feed in a time of immense deficiencies.  

In order to comprehend the complexities of women on the strength of the Continental forces, an understanding of the social class and overall economic structures in the colonies is necessary to grasp a larger picture of reasons why women would choose to tail behind their husbands and male family members. Followers of the army were not unknown to the commanders, as many officers spoke of them early on in the war. Lower class women often chose this hardship because they had limited means to economic survival outside of marriage. Due to this dynamic, and the similar socioeconomic status of the average enlisted soldier, men often requested to be furloughed “to visit and provide for their families” during the war. To ensure that his men were accessible, Washington decided that women who followed might accompany their husbands or male family members, as long as they provided a service in exchange for rations and shelter. 

Women were often tasked with domestic chores that matched their duties at home in the civilian world. Laundry was the primary occupation of women on the strength of the army, as most women were often segregated from the main army and attached to the baggage wagons. Soldiers were broken down into six-man messes, and each mess assembled daily to cook their rations for consumption. With the majority of cooking left to the enlisted soldier, women were assigned to “keep them clean and decent”. Those who refused to fulfill their assigned occupation were reprimanded by being drummed out of camp, for the commanding officers often gave orders that “no woman shall draw rations from the Continent… unless they make use of their endeavors to keep their men clean.”

The Process of Doing Laundry in an 18th Century Military Context

The process of laundry was an all-day affair and period guides that explain the process can range from simple to complex methods. Generally, the clothing first went through a soaking process, known as “bucking”. A specific tub was employed for this method and aged urine or lye-based water was usually the preferred sterile tool for soaking clothing due to the ammonia crystals that forms in the liquid. Bucking assisted in breaking down arduous grease and stubborn dirt, it also whitened any clothing that became yellow from body sweat and other contributory environmental factors.

After the clothing was soaked, laundresses made use of lye soap on heavily stained areas and rubbed those spots in between their hands. They did not agitate the cloth vigorously as it deteriorated the fibers quickly, mainly in areas of heavy friction from usage like the seams of shirts under the pit of the arms. The clothing was then folded into a square, placed on a flat hard surface, and then beaten with a beetle or bat. The agitation of the flat wooden tools lifted any residual dirt to the surface of the cloth fibers. The clothing was then boiled in a large copper kettle so that soap and indigo powder blue mixed well and settled in the material. Once the clothing has sufficiently boiled, it was then rinsed thoroughly before wrung and hung dry. The final step in this long process was to press the clothing with a sad or box iron that was heated by fire or charcoal. 

Laundry was a crude as well as an under developed chore during campaigns and in encampments when the army was stationed for a period of time. The lack of contextual examples of military stores supplying indigo powder blue or starch lead the theory that they were not being used by laundresses in a military setting. Irons had to be kept clean and well-greased to ensure that they did not fuse to starched cloth. Laundresses commonly had two irons to have an operational system; one being used and one re-heating. Given that the weight of this particular tool may be a burden for followers who carried all of their belongings while traveling with army, ultimately many women may have chosen not to bring them. In addition, Quartermaster reports and other period manuscripts have yet to mention the distribution of irons or the use of them by washerwomen.

The movement of the army relied heavily on major bodies of water to nourish the thirst of men and livestock. It was a necessary element when finding places to rest, and women took advantage of natural resources to sustain laundry operations. They were not always careful of what part of the waterway they took their wash to, as they “continue the vile practice of washing their dirty clothing in the run upon which the soldiers thirst depend upon for their water they drink”. Laundresses would situate themselves in shallow banks and employed rocks as surfaces for beating dirt out of clothing. Some visual examples of British laundresses by waterways appear to have kettles over a fire nearby, most likely boiling clothing after they’ve been thoroughly soaped. While completing the wash in local water sources is an ancient practice, it is a rudimentary compared to the system in 18th century laundries. 

Although there are no surviving extant examples of laundry equipment found in archeological digs, the 1st Pennsylvania provides a small glimpse of women preforming their laundress duties away from a major waterway. On July 13th 1779 an order was given that “the women is strictly forbidden to wash in front of the tents or to through [sic] soap suds or any other kind of filth on the regimental parade”. Many questions remain as to who was providing their equipment and what type of tools were used. Social and financial complexities may factor into the Quartermaster’s inability to purchase wash tubs and copper kettles. Women may have also financed their own equipment from the tradesmen who sold various and sundry goods in long term encampments.

Economic and Supply Factors Associated with Laundry Operations

In addition to being provided rations, laundresses were permitted to charge an appropriate price for their services. Pricing structures varied greatly throughout the war, and during times of supply scarcities, patterns of orders that “frequent complaints are made” because “the men receive no benefit by washing from them” appear in manuscripts. When Robert Gamble of the second Virginia regiment wrote about this particular complaint in his orderly book on October of 1779 while stationed in Kakeate, New York “three women who draw Rations” in his company were in question. His proposal to divide the company into three squads and have the men “deliver her the soap they draw and pay her the stipulated price- expect when is not sufficient & she is obliged to purchase” seemed to have concluded any discord amongst his enlisted men as no other grievances were made. Appealing for state funding, Washington wrote to the Virginia Board of War on October 20th, 1779 that he was “exceedingly sorry to find that they had to encounter such difficulties with respect to supplies of Clothing for the Troops of their State”, concerned for the distresses they have heretofore suffered from a scantiness of supplies”.

As the army moved south into Middlebrook, New Jersey to encamp during the winter months, there was no relief to supply deficiencies. On February 11th 1779, on the banks of Millstone River, the “officers of ye P.L. (Pennsylvania Line) have observed that ye tradesmen & wash women belonging to ye army makes a practice to charge ye officers & soldiers very extravagant prices for which work they do in camp”. For those who were contracted to wash for officers, a half dollar per day was recommended, if they were able to procure soap. Mutiny was on the rise throughout the army, and Washington could only conclude that “the depreciation of our currency and the advance of necessaries are made the ostensible reasons for these disturbances”. “These are evils which are felt by all, but none less than the common soldier who is entirely fed and chiefly clothed by the public” he somberly wrote to General John Sullivan on February 14th, 1779.

In both of these examples, soap seemed to be the common absence mentioned. In an attempt to regulate the appearance and hygiene of his army, Washington issued soap along with food rations. The soap ration structure set in 1776 was that “twenty pounds of soft, or eight pounds of hard, soap for one hundred men per week” would be the standard allowance. In addition to procuring soap from outside contractors, the army attempted to manage the shortage by making and storing its own soap. On November 14th, 1779 General orders were given that “the comminssary will furnish Fatt & Casks to Each Reg’t for the purpose of making Soap. The Q. Master (Quartermaster) will immediately Cause the women belonging to Each Company & Batt’n to attend to this necessary Business.”

The Soap Making Process

The process of making soap began with the creation of caustic lye water. Wood ash was gathered and stored in wooden barrels. Water was then poured over the ashes to start the process of leaching. As the water mixed with the wood ash the brown lye liquid would slowly seep through the bottom of the barrel and to be collected. The second step involved boiling animal fat or tallow until it was thoroughly melted and then cooled. The clean rendered fat would be lifted from the surface and blended with the lye to form the soap mass. To preserve the soap salt was folded into the mixture, the result being “hard soap”.

Women who collected rations while on the strength of their regiments would most likely been given an allotted amount of soap as well. Receipts have yet to turn up additional soap being given for laundry, and through orderly books it seems apparent that the individuals in the army were giving laundresses a portion of their soap ration for washing as a means to stabilize laundry prices. Shortages would have affected followers obtaining enough soap to sufficiently clean enough clothing, and in return they would increase their prices in order to purchase food or soap from outside sources. 


There are still so many unanswered questions to this “caravan of wild beasts” that Joseph Plumb Martin formally called women. The lack of contextual references in military manuscripts is a sign of a period where women were seen and not heard. Although followers were considered a nuisance to the upper commanders, they did provide a valuable service to the army. Without their presence and domestic duties, the army would have suffered even lower morale and sanitation issues that would have resulted in an influx of desertion as well as disease. The sacrifices and hardships they endured to ensure survival during the war is not only fascinating, but utterly remarkable.


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Written by Samantha Allison, a reenactor for almost three decades who coordinates civilian programming at Washington Crossing Historic Park, with sincere appreciation and acknowledgements to Kenneth Gavin, Tammy Lippert and Alex Robb for their editorial contributions.