Museum presents ‘Laundresses of the Army’
The first women to be on the United States military payroll weren’t working as cooks. At Saturday’s Basehor Historical Museum program, “Laundresses of the Army,” visitors found out the first females to be paid by the military were laundresses.
Vivion Ross, of the Leavenworth County Historical Society, gave a living history presentation to demonstrate how Army laundry was washed during the years leading up to the Civil War.
Ross, who called herself simply “Miss Vivion,” acted as a laundress to add a realistic feeling to the program.
“I feel fortunate to be part of the military,” Ross said. “During these times, women don’t have a lot of opportunities except for teaching, sewing and prostitution. I’m grateful for this job.”
During the war between the United States and Mexico, four laundresses were assigned to each company, Ross said. The companies usually had 28 men each, so the four laundresses washed everything for all 28 soldiers. Ross said the laundresses received 50 cents per month for each enlisted soldier in the company and $1 per month for each officer. This amounted to about $18 or $19 per month for each laundress.
“We get paid whenever they can find us,” Ross said. “We’re out there on the front, so it’s not easy to find us. A lot of times, the head laundress gets all the money, and she comes out looking for us.”
The group of women Ross represented was lucky enough to have a tent to sleep in, she said. The Army supplied some of the laundresses with a tent and all them were given three meals a day. Those who weren’t given a tent and didn’t have one of their own slept in barns, under trees and under wagons, Ross said.
A strategic process was designed by the women to get the soldiers’ clothing as clean as possible. First, the women would boil water and soak all the clothes in the boiling pot. This was to loosen up dirt and kill any bugs that had been taken home in the clothing. Next, the women vigorously scrubbed each piece against a washing board, using lye soap to remove stains. After this, the clothes would be rinsed again and hung up to dry.
Ross said the Army had a few strict rules when it came to the laundry. No one was to be in “suds row,” the area packed with laundry stations, unless they were picking up or dropping off laundry. Also, the laundresses were never to engage in romantic relationships with any of the soldiers.
“We don’t flip our skirts, ladies and gentlemen,” Ross told her audience. “If we did, we would be dishonorably discharged, and we didn’t want that.”
Laundresses served as active members of the military until the Civil War, Ross said. Before that, laundresses made a large contribution to the military.
“The women served as long as they could, and they played an important role in history,” Ross said.
For more information about this event or future events at the Basehor or Leavenworth historical societies, contact the Basehor Historical Museum at (913) 724-4022 or the Leavenworth County Historical Society at (913) 682-7759.