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- Washing bats and beetles
- Washing dollies
- List of all articles
Katty took a pailful of soiled linen to the spot where the stream formed a little pool, and where the villagers had fixed a broad and flat "beetling" stone.
Patrick Kennedy, Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, 1891
Clothes...were first soaked in warm suds in a half-barrel made into a tub - to loosen the dirt. Then they were lifted to a battling block, resembling a butcher's block, and pounded with a batler, a wooden stick. Warm water was constantly poured on them, and very little dirt was left. Such as remained was scrubbed away by a washboard in a tub of suds.
Florence Warfield Sillers, History of Bolivar County Mississippi, 1948
If you would have the esteem credit and reputation of a compleat Laundry-Maid, you must observe these following directions. ...you must take care of all the Linen in the house ... be careful that your Tubs and Copper, or whatever else you make use of be kept clean, and in good repair...
Hannah Woolley, The Compleat Servant-Maid, 1677
Before there were washboards . . .
Washing beetles, laundry bats, beetle-stones, possing-sticks, dollies
"Vintage" washboards with a corrugated metal or glass surface for rubbing clothes clean are quite a modern laundry tool, from the inventive 19th century. Beating the laundry against a rock with a stick, stone, or board is a more ancient way of getting the dirt out.
The washing bats, also known as beetles (for beating) or battledores, in the photos are 18th and 19th century English designs, similar to the implement in the 20th century Polish painting below, or the 19th century engraving right, or this Albanian "spade", or this thousands-of-years-old laundry bat from ancient Egypt.
You might pound a heap of cloth in a river, pond or trough, and spread it You might pound a heap of cloth in a river, pond or trough, and spread it on a beetle-stone or wooden battling-block, to be beaten with, or without, soap. Bats might also be used on a washing stock, a board on legs. Cylindrical baseball bat styles were used as well as the kind with a flat surface, square or a long rectangle like a cricket bat - in the UK and USA and elsewhere. (Some people now distinguish them by calling the flat-sided ones bats or battledores and the round ones beetles, but I suspect this is a recent search for "logic" in the names. For centuries they have been treated as simple alternatives - "batyldoure, or wasshyng betylle" in the Promptorium Parvulorum c1440 - and as ever we must allow for regional variations too.)
Trampling the laundry with feet was another possibility, with bare feet or wearing wooden clogs:
... commonly to be seen by the sides of the river ... in all the parts of Scotland where I have been ...women with their coats [petticoats] tucked up, stamping, in tubs, upon linen by way of washing ...
Edward Burt, Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland, 1754
Over the centuries more and more people had easier access to water, and washing in tubs at home became more and more common - using sticks for pounding and stirring. The baseball-bat shaped beetles hadn't changed shape much since they were branches on a tree. This was also the shape from which washing dollies or ponches, and possers developed.
A posser was described in the 18th century as "a log of wood" used for beating cloth in a shallow trough or tub. In the 19th century most dollies and possers were designed for plunging into a taller wash-tub. A dolly usually had three or four legs on a long handle, giving three times the effect of a single pole, while a posser, often called a plunger in the US, had a (sometimes perforated) conical base, to help circulate water and suds while also beating the dirt out of the heavier pieces of laundry. Dolly may mean anything on a long handle used for the wash.
>>>> More on dollies and possers
The names of the wooden beaters varied from region to region: washing-beetles, clothes-beetles, bats, paddles, beatels, bittles, battledores, battling-sticks, battling-staffs. Other names for washing implements were washing-dolly, dolly-legs, dolly-peg, peggy, maiden, possing-stick, poss-stick. The tub was sometimes called a dolly-tub. The beetling-block could be a beetling/battling-bench, or battling-board.
Tubs and coppers [big metal pans] to heat the water had been taken for granted in comfortably-off households for centuries, but the rural poor of Europe still used bats and Nature's water supply into the 20th century, as they do in some parts of the world today. The young washerwomen beetling clothes on a beetle-stone in the picture (top right) were an "amusing" and "quaint" illustration for an 1891 book about Ireland.
The washing-beetle was once the stereotypical weapon of choice for an angry wife, remembered in literature and even in 14th/15th century carvings in Tewkesbury Abbey and Carlisle Cathedral.
Beetles could be used for smoothing ("ironing") too. There were beetles used like mallets for many purposes - in agriculture, building, and food preparation. They often went together with a hammering block, hence the old phrase "between the beetle and the block " to mean "in a tight corner".
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