Image Washing clothes in an iron tub, c1890s

TLF ID R3222

This is a black-and-white photograph made from a glass negative. It shows a woman washing clothes by hand in a galvanised iron tub outdoors, beside a high fence made from sheets of galvanised iron. A cane laundry basket and washed clothes hanging on a clothes line can be seen.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset illustrates part of the laborious routine of a 'washing day' - before the introduction of electric washing machines, a whole day was set aside for washing clothes in either a large galvanised tub or in a 'copper' (a large round container lined with copper); water was boiled on the stove top and poured into the tub or a fire was lit under the copper; clothes were then added and moved around in the tub with a stick before being rinsed in cold water, scrubbed with homemade lye soap against a ribbed 'washboard' and squeezed to remove excess soap and water before being hung out to dry.
  • It depicts 'whites' being either rinsed for the second time or whitened in water made blue through the addition of a small 'blue-bag', a cube of indigo tied in an old piece of sheeting - after rinsing, the clothes were hand-wrung again and may then have been put through a mangle, a series of rollers that squeezed out more water as the operator turned a handle.
  • It shows part of a clothes line made from rope - clothes lines were typically tied between purpose-built posts, trees or buildings, with one or more tall notched poles or 'props' used to hold the centre of the line up high; if there was not enough room on the clothes line, clothes would be hung on fences and bushes; if it rained, the clothes would be hung under a veranda or taken inside and placed on drying racks near a fire to dry.
  • It features a woman who may have been employed to wash the clothes - washing was such an arduous and time-consuming task that many middle-class families paid to have it done by a washer-woman, who either came to the house once a week or 'took in' washing to supplement her income.
  • It shows typical clothing worn during the late 1800s by women performing housework - a blouse and skirt were preferred over a dress as the skirt required less washing; in this image, an apron has been tied around the waist to help keep the skirt clean; the woman is also wearing a folded scarf tied at the neck.
Year level

F; 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12

Learning area
  • history;
  • studies of society and environment
  • History/Historical knowledge and understanding

    Other details

    • Content provider
    • Copyright holder
    • Organisation: National Library of Australia
    • Remarks: Reproduced courtesy of National Library of Australia
    • Author
    • Name: Robert Morse Withycombe
    • Remarks: photographer
    • Publisher
    • Date of contribution: 30 Aug 2013
    • Organisation: Education Services Australia
    • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
    • URL:
    Access profile
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    • Device independence
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    Learning resource type
    • Image
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    • © Education Services Australia Ltd and National Library of Australia, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements