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Southwestern States Mission: Washing Clothes

By: Edje Jeter - April 15, 2012

For 1900 Jul 16, Elder Jones reports that “After dinner I went out to the branch where I washed my garments and had a bath.” [1] How often and in what circumstances did the missionaries wash clothes?

The Elders washed clothes something like two to four times per month in the summer and one to two times per month in the winter (or less) but did not have a set day or frequency. They probably changed clothes about as often. Monday was the most popular day and Thursday the least. [2] Sometimes they washed clothes “…as we did not have any work to do…” The Elders usually washed when staying with someone (80%) rather than traveling (20%) and probably used tubs more often than creeks or ponds. [3]

Church leaders told missionaries to keep clothing “clean and neat” for health and image. [4] Keeping clothes “clean” in the mud, dust, and heat was non-trivial (see also: hopeless), but I haven’t noticed any anxiety about it or any “keep clean because it’s a rule” thinking. I also haven’t noted any indications that “clean” clothes distinguished missionaries from the people they visited or from the missionaries themselves pre-mission.

How the clothes came to be clean, however, differed markedly. [5] The Elders did their own washing about two-thirds of the times, paid for it a handful, and received the balance as gift. Everyone they paid was Black. Most—probably all—the third-party washers were female. [6] In some instances the Elders did their own washing but wrote that it was “because” the woman of the house could not. [7] Some of the women volunteered and/or insisted. [8] At any rate, Elder Clark lamented when he washed clothes they “don’t look like they had been through a laundry” and, two months later, that “Sister Byers is making fun of our washing.” [9]



The “Southwestern States Mission” series uses the diaries of six missionaries who served in eastern Texas around 1900 to illustrate aspects of Mormon material culture, lived religion, and social History. The missionaries are Mission President Duffin and Elders Brooks, Clark, Folkman, Forsha, and Jones. The series is inspired by Ardis Parshall’s serial posting of the missionary diary of Willard Larson Jones at Keepapitchinin. Previous installment here.

[1] The word “garment” could mean the temple “garment” or just “clothes.” A “branch” is probably a “creek.” For this post I’m ignoring activities like hemming, mending, patching, dying, and brushing clothes; hopefully they will have a moment of blog glory at some point.

[2] Instances of washing in weekday order (MTWRFSS): Brooks: 5, 1, 2, 0, 4, 4, 0; Clark: 4, 4, 4, 2, 4, 3, 1; Jones: 9, 6, 4, 4, 8, 5, 0. I have no conjectures on how the Elders chose washing days. Forsha and Folkman did not record washing often enough to comment about the pattern. Duffin, with a fixed address and more money, paid for washing with his rent.

[3] In 82 instances a creek/pond/river is mentioned 17 times (21%) and a tub/tank 21 times (26%) with the balance unspecified. Since most of the washing was done at a house and since creek, etc, mentions don’t rule out a tub, I think we’re safe in imagining them usually (80% of times) with a tub.

[4] “Church leaders” = Mission President Duffin (2 letters, 2 sermons) and visiting Apostle GA Smith (1 sermon). In both letters Duffin explicitly links clean clothes to physical health and then immediately emphasizes the importance of appearances. The Smith sermon discusses clothes in the context of appearances.

[5] When Elder Brooks first mentions washing “garments” he notes “That was my first time,” followed by, “I got pretty tired of it before I got through” (Brooks, 1899 Dec 25 Mon). It could have been his first time to wash temple garments, but I am inclined (because of the “tired of it”) to read “garments” here as “clothes.”

[6] Of the 82 entries with unambiguous washing of “clothes,” the Elders do the washing 57 times (70%), they pay 4 times (5%) and receive the service for free 21 times (25%). 15 entries explicitly indicate a female washer. I find nothing in the remainder to suggest male involvement. In an additional 23 entries the Elders washed specific items but not a full “load.” Thus, in 105 full or partial washings, the Elders washed 80 times (76%). When they paid, the price was a copy of the book, A Voice of Warning (twice), the book plus $0.10, or $0.15. I haven’t figure out if these were good prices or not. There is one instance where a Black woman washed clothes with no mention of payment.

[7] “…we returned to Bro. Grasham’s, where we did our washing, Sister Grasham not being at home” (Duffin, 1899 Dec 25 Mon); “I washed his and my clothes as Sister Threet had so much to do. It took her about all the time to cook” (Brooks, 1901 Feb 09 Sat); “in the Afternoon as sister Kirkpatrick was sick we Washed our Clothes and Mending shoes. Etc.” (Forsha, 1900 Jun 09 Sat); “We also washed our clothes in the morning owing to Sister Kirk not being well” (Folkman, 1901 Jan 25 Fri).

[8] I have not noticed indications of cajolery, browbeating, or other such to inspire “volunteerism” for clothes washing. Of course, they might not have written it down, but the Elders sometimes record “talking pretty hard” to get places to sleep, so it is not entirely implausible that they would record manipulating or guilting someone into washing clothes. That said, the Elders seem genuinely grateful for the service. “Sister Findley wanted me to let them be and she would wash them, but I wouldn’t. She would work herself to death for the Elders” (Brooks, 1900 May 12 Sat); “…we concluded to stay with the kind family and wash our clothes if agreeable, but when we made our wants known, the kind sister said that she would wash them for us” (Jones, 1901 Jun 28 Fri). We “asked for the permission of washing them ourselves but they would not adhere to that. He said his daughter would wash them for us, so while she was doing it, we went out into the field and hoed cotton until noon” (Jones, 1900 Jun 06 Wed).

[9] Clark, 1900 May 25 Fri; Jul 21 Sat. Part of Sister Byers’s issue was that Elder Clark wasn’t using soap.

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10 Comments

  1. This entry — this whole series — is wonderful, Edje. Care of clothes is, I think, what gave me my first glimpse that traveling without purse or scrip was not the romantic, noble one-true-correct-and-eternal-way of doing missionary work, the way we sometimes imagine it. These boys were essentially homeless for more than two years, with no access to even the most trivial comforts or conveniences — like a dependable place to wash out a pair of socks. Elder Jones, at least, never seems to grumble about that, instead expressing gratitude on the occasions where that changes, as Edje notes, when some kind woman insists on doing his laundry.

    Doing missionary laundry is one of the details that has survived in the few family stories that have come down to me from my great grandmother’s life in Alabama at the exact time of the missions being studied by Edje. Often the family’s first intimation that there were missionaries in the neighborhood would be a loud thump on the porch — the elders always tried to make as loud a noise with their grips as possible, Grandma said — followed by a cheerful “Mother Hall, we’re here!” Whether they were there overnight or for a week, they never left the Hall home without every stitch of their clothing washed, ironed, and mended.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 15, 2012 @ 11:05 am

  2. Just wanted to say I am enjoying these.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 15, 2012 @ 11:13 am

  3. Part of Sister Byers’s issue was that Elder Clark wasn’t using soap.

    Heh. I guess it is not just the later young missionaries who were not always the most brilliant.

    You mentioned bathing. I hope that one of these times you’ll discuss shaving.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 15, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  4. Great stuff, as always, Edje.

    Everyone they paid was Black.

    I’m intrigued by this. What sort of language did they use when noting the race of the hired laundress?

    Comment by Christopher — April 15, 2012 @ 11:52 am

  5. Fun stuff, Ed. Thanks, and ditto to Chris’ follow up question.

    Comment by Jared T — April 15, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

  6. Footnote 1: “hopefully they will have a moment of blog glory at some point”

    This whole series is a moment of blog glory.

    Comment by Amy T — April 15, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

  7. Thanks, Ardis, Matt, J, Christopher, Jared, and Amy.

    Ardis: That’s a great anecdote. I think the bonds and love growing up around the missionaries’ needs were key in the development of the ungathered church. The traveling missionaries were like valence electrons binding the scattered saints ionically to the Mormon heartlands and covalently to other Saints drizzled throughout the mission.

    J Stapley: Except… Elder Clark was in his early 40s. And he really missed his wife.

    Christopher and Jared: Elder Brooks says “negro” or “negro woman”; Elder Jones says “nigger” or “colored family.” I haven’t started coding or analyzing racialized language but my initial impression is that the missionaries are pretty consistent, ie, Elder Brooks almost always writes “negro.”

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 15, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

  8. Do we know how the washing/laundering/shaving habits of the “w/o purse and scrip” missionaries compares to the rural population in Texas, or anywhere in the U.S., in those days? I suspect that the missionaries would seem dirty if transported into our early 21st century cities–but how did they fit in with the population where they were working?

    Comment by Mark B. — April 16, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  9. Mark, as far as the diaries go, “I also haven’t noted any indications that “clean” clothes distinguished missionaries from the people they visited or from the missionaries themselves pre-mission.”

    As far as some external source… I’m not familiar with the lit, though 1900 is well before the bathe-every-day, change-clothes-every-day era.

    So… with (1) the lack of comment or surprise on bathing and washing clothes and (2) the frequency that the Elders ‘tag along’ with people who are already washing their own clothes, I’m pretty sure the Elders were fitting in rather than standing out in terms of their hygiene.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 16, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

  10. [...] The “Southwestern States Mission” series uses the diaries of six missionaries who served in eastern Texas around 1900 to illustrate aspects of Mormon material culture, lived religion, and social History. The missionaries are Mission President Duffin and Elders Brooks, Clark, Folkman, Forsha, and Jones. The series is inspired by Ardis Parshall’s serial posting of the missionary diary of Willard Larson Jones at Keepapitchinin. Previous installment here. [...]

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