Over the next several weeks Buncombe County Special Collections will share five different posts by former Special Collections (NC Room) Librarian Zoe Rhine. Since “retiring” in January 2020, Zoe has continued to follow her research interests; investigating the lives of African Americans in the late 19th century.
Do you have research or stories about Asheville and Buncombe County you’d like to share with the community? In the near future, we’ll be making calls for community members to submit posts to HeardTell, so keep an eye on the blog and our other social media over the coming weeks for more information.
Doing laundry in 1890 was so arduous that most residents who could afford to would have their clothing and linens sent out to be washed and pressed. The job as laundress—low-paying and physically taxing—fell mostly to Black women who had little access to education and few opportunities other than domestic work. In her essay on Black women as wage-earners, Rita Koman states that during this time in the South, being a domestic worker was analogous to being a Black woman. The Asheville City Directory 1890 identifies 180 Black women as laundresses while only three white women were listed as such.
As noted in the introduction to this series, laundress (also called washerwoman) was listed as the primary occupation of Black working women in 1890 Asheville.
Why would a woman choose laundry work over other types of domestic service? It is possible laundresses made more money. It is also possible that being newly emancipated, formerly enslaved women preferred to maintain even limited autonomy by working in their own homes, caring for their own families, setting their own schedules, and easing the workload by recruiting family members to help. In contrast, other domestics often lived in their employers’ homes and were on call, day and night, with little control over their personal time.
While most laundresses worked for private homes, a few Black women worked in hotels. Rosa Davis and Queen Justice worked and lived at the Glen Rock Hotel, and Maggie Rice worked at the Grand Central Hotel but lived at her own residence.
Ashevillians would continue to hire laundresses despite the growing number of commercial cleaners. As early as 1884, white residents had the option* of having their clothes cleaned at the Troy Steam Laundry and the Asheville Steam Laundry. In 1890, the Model Steam Laundry on Patton Avenue and a Chinese Laundry on South Main were options. All offered free pick-up and delivery by wagon. Their prices may have been higher than a laundress’s, but the advantages may have outweighed the cost. Did the laundry services do a better job of cleaning clothes? An ad for the Model Steam Laundry in the 1890 City Directory touted: “. . . the business meets a long felt want, for nothing perhaps is more productive of profanity than a dress shirt indifferently washed or poorly ironed…”
Despite such indirect slurs against the quality of their work, laundresses continued to exist alongside the mechanized laundry industry for several decades in Asheville. Why would it be preferable to hire a laundress? Perhaps the washerwomen charged less than the cleaning companies, or they were able to do more personalized work. Did some laundresses do other types of work in the employer’s home, making it economical to continue with the laundress? Or perhaps employers had developed a friendly loyalty to their employees that they wanted to continue? More information is needed to answer these and other questions concerning the lives of laundresses in Asheville.
The photograph below reveals details of the washing process—the methods probably did not change much over a couple of decades.
In this fall or late winter scene, a row of wash buckets sits on makeshift risers in the background, along with a washboard over another bucket at left center. A laundress would manually rub the clothes multiple times over a washboard to release the dirt. Two women work alongside each other; one adding kindling to a fire under a kettle, and the other woman taking a wet garment out of the hot rinse pot. Two children are helping. The girl on the right holds a bucket, probably adding water to a pot, and the girl in the background appears to have her hands inside one bucket, turning clothes. Some laundry is drying in the background. This work would have to be done outside since a small dwelling would not provide enough room.
The laundry of two or three families would be cleaned over a week’s time. It was common for a husband or child to pick up and deliver laundry to the white residences. Johnny Baxter (later known for his role in saving the Young Men’s Institute (YMI) Building by promoting its designation as a historic site) remembered as a child delivering laundry for his mother, Alice**, to Judge Charles Moore’s house at 156 Merrimon Avenue. The judge’s wife, Lulu Moore, took an interest in young Baxter and gave him his first paying job raking leaves. Baxter referred to Mrs. Moore as “…one of the finest persons I’ve ever met. She didn’t make any difference between my being black and her being white.”
One woman’s story reflects how circumstances and poverty interrupted early education and forced young people into the workforce. Violet Agnes Petty was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1864 to George and Elizabeth Petty.
When Violet’s father died, her mother sent Violet and her five siblings to live in Asheville with their aunt, Betsy Petty Lyles, and her husband, William. Juanita Clark Boyd, Violet’s granddaughter, said that Violet’s education ended after the third grade because another aunt needed her help doing laundry. This probably refers to Anna Petty who is listed as a laundress living at 136 Valley Street. At seventeen, Violet married the brick mason and contractor James Vester Miller, known for his masonry work around Asheville including the Municipal Building and several historic Black churches. Though her own education was cut short, Violet taught her husband how to read and write.
Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950), often called the “Father of Black History,” referred to the laundress as “…a vanishing figure whose name everyone should mention with veneration.”
Writing in 1930 about the washerwomen of the past, Woodson stated, “The washerwoman who went out occasionally to do day work or had the clothes brought home, remained for several generations. The importance of this role could not be underestimated.” It was often their income, for instance, that helped purchase the family home and further the children’s education. Sometimes these women were able to support their husbands in their pursuit of training as well. In many ways, according to Woodson, it was the work of the washerwomen that helped push the Black economy forward.
Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.Dr. Carter G. Woodson
How many men in Asheville were able to pursue careers as ministers, teachers, or other professionals due to the industriousness of their wives? How many children benefited from their mother’s income as laundress, enabling them to gain a foothold in the economy through higher education?
The Buncombe County Special Collections (BCSC) would welcome any stories from Asheville residents whose parents, grandparents, or other family members worked as laundresses, and about how their work might have affected the family’s income and their children’s futures.
If you have any information to share, please visit the Buncombe County Special Collections, Pack Memorial Library. If you are unable to visit, please call 828.250.4740 or email email@example.com.
About the Author
Zoe Rhine worked in the North Carolina Room for over 27 years, retiring in January 2020. Since then she has continued her research on the early Black teachers in Asheville. While beginning to research the teachers in 1890, she said, “I wondered what other occupations were open to Black people in Asheville in 1890.” At first thinking it would make an interesting blog post, the work turned into these five posts and will be followed with her research on Black male occupations in 1890. The research was done by focusing closely on typical research tools, such as the Asheville City Directory and the Federal Census records, to produce new information about the Black community in Asheville in 1890.
About the Author
Louise Maret has worked as a researcher in primatology, botany, and public health. As a writer, she has been involved in several training and educational projects, most recently as co-author of a college-level humanities webtext,The Search For Meaning and Value. After living in New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Georgia, she moved to Asheville in 1988 and settled in Lakeview Park where she raised two children and a variety of plants and animals. While at Pack Library one day, she found the North Carolina Room–“where I became immediately entranced.”
Notes and Sources
*It is unknown if Black residents had this option in 1890. Segregation and/or cost may have prevented them from using the commercial cleaners for their own clothes.
**Alice Henry Baxter, 1885-1983
Baxter, Johnny interviewed by Louis D. Silveri, August 5, 1975 Southern Highlands Research Center, The University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Fulenweider, Harry W. Asheville City Directory and Business Reflex, 1890. Charleston, S.C.
Koman, Rita G. “Servitude to Service: African American Women as Wage Earners” OAH Magazine of History Winter 1997 p 42
Sharpless, Rebecca, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchen: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960, p15, 2010, University of North Carolina Press.
Woodson, C. G. “The Negro Washerwoman, a Vanishing Figure.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 15, no. 3, 1930, pp. 269–277. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2713969. Accessed 16 Mar. 2021