A Washday Soap Opera
Walk with me along the green banks of the River Eure .
Let’s make that about 4 p.m. on a Sunday so that we might meet and greet other families doing the same. Everyone has had a lovely five or six course meal with the gathered family and now it is time for a marche.
We are in the village of Mevoisin, just downhill from the village church. Our host is telling us about the deep underground tunnel that connects a local home to the basement of the church. Seems it was constructed on the order of Louis XIV as an escape route if ever he should need one. “Escape from what?” we ask. Our answer is a Gallic shrug. Louis’ second wife had a chateau just miles from here. I wonder aloud if the XIV was always looking over his shoulder.
We come to a slate roofed stone building that hangs out over the water. Everybody walks briskly on, but this whatever-it-is looks historical, we need to check this out. Right by the grassy path is a gravestone. The only marking on it is a cross. Our host has turned around to come back to us when he sees our interest in this place. “Who?” we ask.
His answer: “No-one is buried there. It is merely a marker to show that a brave man died here trying to save a child from drowning. He was the local priest. The river is cold and very deep, and he could not swim. They were both swept away.”
There are dandelions at my feet. I pick a little yellow bouquet and place it on the stone.
“So, what is this little pavilion thing?” we ask. Here’s the jist of what we learn:
Public health became a prime concern under the rule of Louis XIV (that same Louis) when it was thought it not healthy to bathe in water, pollutants through the skin or something like that, so people wiped their bodies clean and washed their underwear often. What is often? We don’t know. Outerwear was seldom washed . But it had become the mark of gentility to have very white undies peeping out at the cuffs, the throat, and wherever else underwear can peep.
These wash houses or lavoirs were busy places, dawn to dark, from the time they were built in the early seventeenth century until the end of WWII. They are maintained now as historical landmarks.
Traditionally Frenchmen, emphasis on the men, met in the mornings for coffee and talk at a local café or bar. Women were not welcome. There was no similar social outlet for their wives, then came the lavoir! Men steered clear.
Professional laundresses gained the reputation as the queens of gossip. They had priority rights at the lavoir, taking the best upstream positions,etc. Because of the sound of rushing water, pounding of the laundry paddles, loud conversations, laughter, and of course, arguments the lavoir was the noisiest place in the village.
Le version moderne. No comparison!
Genteel women kept their haughty distance also. It was one of the marks of upper class distinction to have a laundress, or Lavandiere, to soap and pound your underwear and linens clean down at the river. Linens were considered a capital asset, often part of the bride’s dowry, more bragging rights down at the lavoir.
In nearby Chartres the famous cathedral boasted of more than 20 priests that wore white surplices. Spotless . Job security for le lavandieres. The city of Chartres abounds with beautiful old lavoirs.
Housewives also visited the lavoir on the average of twice weekly. Some of these housewives would bring along their elderly neighbor’s soiled laundry, or from the café on the corner, all for a price.
The river would rise and fall with the seasons so most of the lavoirs had a mechanical apparatus that would raise or lower the floor of the wash house. Some had a corner fireplace for warming freezing hands and feet in the winter, but not for heating wash water. All the soaking of heavily soiled linen was done at home, then the weighty wet stuff was wheeled in a wheelbarrow or the bundle balanced on one’s head and down to the lavoir for a thorough pounding.
Each laundress or housewife had her washday specialties. Crushed egg shells were used as whiteners, clover to scent the clean linens. Herbs, vines, iris bulbs…and many other secret potions were wash day products.
At every birth a lavandiere was called in by the midwife to stand by for clean up. She provided the clean linen for the baby and carried away the blood stained bedding.
She also was called in to bathe the dead and wrap the body in clean linen. With death at childbirth so common, she sometimes performed both duties in the same day.
The levandieres and the lavoirs were a thing of the past when the wringer washer became part of the French home . No more kneeling on wet stones, flailing away at your laundry, hauling it there and home….but also gone is bustling social gathering place for women.