In times gone by, even when it came to laundry there was an art and dedication. The hands of the washerwomen rubbed the fabrics against the slanted slabs to leave their customers’ clothes immaculate. Mar d’Estórias “dove” into streams, clothing tanks and public fountains, to share some stories of this profession which has fallen into disuse.
Professional demand for the services of washerwomen grew during the 20th century largely due to the attention and demanding treatment of the garments. Washing, ironing and home-delivering clothes to the wealthiest families began to be a way of subsistence in difficult times: “when my father stopped working in the wood due to illness, my mother had to throw herself into the laundry business” witnessed Luisa, daughter of a former washerwoman, from Bensafrim.
Luisa says that her mother Francisca used to have three clients from Lagos. She recalls “Ti’ Chica do Carmo used to pick the bundles of clothes from Lagos in a donkey cart”, every Saturday, with the intention of being delivered on the following Tuesday. In Barão de São João, the washwoman Maria Domingas didn’t require the donkey cart, she would carry the bundle of clothes on her head, because her clients were local: Mrs. Marreiros who had a grocery shop and tavern; and Bia Rosa which dealt with fig and almond production.
To avoid clothes being delivered by mistake, the owners or the washwomen were careful to mark the clothing, for example, with the initials of the family name. In the case of Francisca, she wrote religiously all the pieces and to whom they belonged on paper so that no mistake was made.
The reality of the time allowed the women to choose between the river, where there were already washing stones and running water; or the public fountain/community tanks which were available for free by the Parish Council.
The garment left on the slab reserved the spot normally occupied as soon as the sun rose. There, the process of lathering and scrubbing with closed fists began. In the river, there were those who placed boards or towels under their knees to make this prolonged position more tolerable.
The hard work, the uncomfortable position and the cold water of the river in the morning did not demoralise these working women. The gossip conversations flowed, and the songs sang defined the clothes washing rhythm.
Companions in the same daily routine helped one another to twist and stretch larger pieces of linen to dry faster. These procedures allowed them to deliver the impeccably washed and perfumed garments.
To overcome the great economic difficulties experienced in the last century, these working women survived by creating a profession that was performed with dedication, care and hard work.