Ann Althouse posts about life before the washing machine, quoting at length from a book by Robert Caro. (PBS had an excellent series, “1900 House” where this labor was also explored.)

The wash was done outside. A huge vat of boiling water would be suspended over a larger, roaring fire and near it three large “Number Three” zinc washtubs and a dishpan would be placed on a bench.

The clothes would be scrubbed in the first of the zinc tubs, scrubbed on a washboard by a woman bending over the tub. The soap, since she couldn’t afford store-bought soap, was soap she had made from lye, soap that was not very effective, and the water was hard. Getting farm dirt out of clothes required hard scrubbing.

Then the farm wife would wring out each piece of clothing to remove from it as much as possible of the dirty water, and put it in the big vat of boiling water. Since the scrubbing would not have removed all of the dirt, she would try to get the rest out by “punching” the clothes in the vat— standing over the boiling water and using a wooden paddle or, more often, a broomstick, to stir the clothes and swish them through the water and press them against the bottom or sides, moving the broom handle up and down and around as hard as she could for ten or fifteen minutes in a human imitation of the agitator of an automatic— electric— washing machine.

The next step was to transfer the clothes from the boiling water to the second of the three zinc washtubs: the “rinse tub.” The clothes were lifted out of the big vat on the end of the broomstick, and held up on the end of the stick for a few minutes while the dirty water dripped out.

When the clothes were in the rinse tub, the woman bent over the tub and rinsed them, by swishing each individual item through the water. Then she wrung out the clothes, to get as much of the dirty water out as possible, and placed the clothes in the third tub, which contained bluing, and swished them around in it—this time to get the bluing all through the garment and make it white — and then repeated the same movements in the dishpan, which was filled with starch.

At this point, one load of wash would be done. A week’s wash took at least four loads: one of sheets, one of shirts and other white clothing, one of colored clothes and one of dish towels. But for the typical, large, Hill Country farm family, two loads of each of these categories would be required, so the procedure would have to be repeated eight times…

Damn those evil corporations that make washing machines. Much better that our clothes be laundered by heirloom methods.