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The modest, house-looking outbuilding before you is actually a reproduction of a laundry. Lacking the machines that most of us use today to wash our personal clothing and household linens, enslaved workers at Gunston Hall washed the Mason’s laundry by hand. This messy, hot, never-ending, and often dangerous process likely occurred in a structure like this.
The most essential tool in cleaning clothes, sheets, and towels is clean water, which was in part supplied by drawing buckets from the covered well. Notice also the gutters and downspouts collected even more water, in this case rainwater, or soft water, into barrels.
The second essential tool in laundering was heat. Gallons of water were boiled in huge copper kettles hung on iron hooks in the large open hearth or over a fire outside. The textiles were left to soak, and eventually stirred, along with soap made at Gunston Hall. The air inside was always humid, curling hair and chapping the hardworking hands of the enslaved women assigned to this space.
Soft soap was produced on site, using lye collected from ashes and rendered animal fat stored next door in the dairy. The large pottery jar, originally used to store olive oil, in the corner represents the repurposed objects that may have held the soap.
Just inside the fireplace, several heavy irons heated up on the hearth facing the fire. As they cooled they were exchanged. The repetitive, hard work took its toll on enslaved workers bodies and minds. Boredom and exhaustion led to more accidents like burns on their fingers, hands, and arms.
Most of the pieces were ironed, carefully folded and sometimes pinned in place. Some delicate pieces, like ruffles, were starched and shaped before being returned to the mansion.
Look at the ceiling. See the crawl space? Laundering, while not a 24-hour occupation, did take most of the week and required the work of many hands. Perhaps an entire family lived in the garret above. Additional helpers may have come from the nearby quarters for enslaved people.
Imagine toiling in this space in all seasons, especially times of extreme heat or cold. In the summer, there was still a fire. In the winter, wet fabric continued to be wrung out by hand.
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