Woman and Child on Bleaching Field, c. 1658. Oil on Canvas. Source

The short answer to this question is No, but only because men typically did not wash their clothes in the 16th century. Keeping linens clean, including clothing items, were done by women. (Men were capable, and there were certain cricumstances where men did wash clothes, but generally speaking, it was women). If you were an unmarried man, you typically had a staff in your home whose job it was to clean the linens, including your clothes. There are even 16-17th century historical records of men hiring women specifically to clean the laundry.  

That doesn’t mean that Shakespeare’s clothes weren’t clean, just that he likely didn’t clean them himself. So how did his clothes GET clean? What was the process of doing laundry in Shakespeare’s lifetime? Here’s what I found out: 

It seems that it was specifically the bed clothes and underclothes, as opposed to the outer garments, that were washed at all. The outer, more decorative, clothing made of high quality items like velvet or silk, were too delicate to be submitted to the harsh cleaning methods of the 16-17th century, so instead, these garments were merely kept very clean when being worn, and then reused until they wore out and were too ratty to continue wearing.

Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth and David Garrick as Macbeth at Theater Royal, Drury Lane, 1768. Source

A fun theater fact is that some aristocratic families would often decide their clothes were ready to be replaced well before the garment had lost all of it’s wearing power, so the leftover clothing from the family of a theater patron was often a source of costumes for the theater players, who needed aristocratic clothing to portray the nobility on stage. 

Ways to clean laundry in the 16th century:

Famously, Lady Macbeth cries “Out, out!” to the spot she is removing after the murder of King Duncan in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That line carries a certain weight when you understand that as a woman, Lady Macbeth had likely scrubbed a spot out of clothing, and her frustration was real at the imovable spot she was scrubbing. 

While Lady Macbeth’s spot was all in her head, for physical stains on laundry in Shakespeare’s lifetime there were proven methods that involved scrubbing to remove them. Though they could be really nasty.

c. 1620-1626 A bleaching field, from an album of 102 drawings; five women collecting or laying down clothing or sheets, a man with a basket of cloth on a wheelbarrow and a dog by a kennel at r, a gabled house beyond Watercolour and bodycolour, over black chalk, heightened with silver and gold. Source

Before that you suffer it to be washed, lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out’

– Hannah Woolley, in The Compleat Servant-Maid, 1677

Urine was a proven strategy for whitening cloths and getting out stains, because the ammonia content was good for removing dirt and grease. This practice of using urine to clean cloths continued well into the 18th century.

The urine was collected came from chamberpots, which were like pots kept in the bedroom for using the bathroom. After soaking the linen in the urine, it was placed in a large tub, called a buck tub, where lye and potash would be poured over the linen several times to clean it. Some historians believe this is one origin for the phrase “passing the buck.” Source

Woman washing with a buck pot, with a buck cloth spread over the top. That’s likely lye or potash she’s pouring through the clothes and you can see the collection vessel beneath the buck pot so the mixture could be reused. Part 1 Louvre – Millet, Jean-Francois — La lessiveuse-the washerwoman. Canvas, 44 x 33 cm R.F. 1438 Source.

After the lye or potash was run through the clothes, clean water was boiled up in the tub and the linen would be rinsed up to eight times or more. Women applied soap to the linen to scrub it, and used washboards or paddles to beat the linens before they were rinsed entirely. 

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Bleaching Fields

The next stage in the cleaning process was dual purpose. Sunshine was used to bleach the clothes, while also drying them. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the most common method of bleaching the clothes in the sun was to lay them out on large grounds known as bleaching fields.

LAVANDIERES Splendor Solis image 21 Le Splendor Solis, Harley Ms. 3469, ff. 17v, 18r. Artiste Enlumineurs anonymes du XVIe Date 1532 Type Recueil alchimique Technique Enluminure sur parchemin Format 129 folios. Source

In many areas, official communal washing areas were established known as “the bleaching ground”, where a large open grassy area was kept cut and open so that household linens and clothing could be spread out all over the grass in the daytime. 

This practice would come over from England to the new colonies in America, and communal bleaching areas for laundry was part of the Early American life. Washing and drying of clothes were often public affairs, and considered group activities. 

Flemish Market and Bleaching Fields, c. 1620. Oil on Canvas. Source

The Great Wash

Once a year, households would hold a Great Wash, where everything that could be washed was brought out and cleansed. It was a multiple day affair and preceeds what we think of as Spring Cleaning today.

Larger households with a big staff could afford to wash more frequently, but on average a Great Wash was done annually. To complete such a project, the house would hire out help and we know it was both expensive and involved to clean and purify an entire house because we have records like this list from the Duke of Bedford in 1675 when his household held their Great Wash. Here’s what they used:

‘For washing sheets and napkins before the great wash when the two masters was in town 2s

For four pounds of soap 1s

For six pounds of candles 2s 6d

For three women one day to wash 4s 6d

A woman two days to help dry up the linen 3s

For oil, ashes, and sand to scour 1s 8d

A woman to scour two days 3s

For washing of twelve pair of sheets at 4d per pair 4s

For two pounds of soap to scour the great room 6d

For nine pounds of soap 2s 3d

For four mops 4s

For Fuller’s earth and sand to scour the rooms 1s 8d

A woman six days to help to wash all the rooms after the workmen left the house 6s

A woman six days for scouring and washing the rooms and cleaning the irons against the family’s coming to town 6s

A woman to help air the bedding when the family came to town 2s Source

Now to tally up exactly how much money that is today, you will need to understand Elizabethan coinage and comparison which is a topic for another day, but you may like this video we did about Elizabethan coinage to help you work it out.

Even without converting the money to modern currency, we can see that a Great Wash, and the act of keeping things neat and clean in Shakespeare’s lifetime was often a complicated endeavor.

That’s it for this week! I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next Saturday!

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