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The Laundry
Louis-Adolphe Humbert de Molard (French, Paris 1800–1874)
1840s, Salted paper print Credit Line: Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005

How many men does it take to know what kind of wood a laundry tub should be made of?
For now, one woman. Yes, I’ve got a new obsession.

It started innocently enough with an exchange about future laundry tubs and an existing tub described as large, made of pine, and badly shrunken. Somehow I found myself burning to know, What is the appropriate wood for a laundry tub made in southeastern New England between 1775 and 1785?

Luckily I work in the kind of place where you might find an answer to that kind of question. In the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, I found George Dods Cooper Accounts (MSS 9001-D Box 4). Mr Dod worked as a cooper in Providence between about 1790 and 1820, so he’s later than I need for this specific application, but I’m not sure the form changes radically before 1850, so Mr Dods seemed like a good place to begin.

While I did not find the hoped-for a receipt for purchases of specific kinds of wood, I did find that Dods was coopering with both iron and wooden hoops, and that he was making barrels, tubs and buckets of unspecified kinds of wood as well as cedar tubs.

1813 Mr Holroid
Nov 19
Sating 4 iron hoops on a Poudering Tub 0=6 0
Sating 6 Wooden Do- on another – Do- 0=3 0

Oct 3 Satting 3 hoops on a large cedar tub 1 firking hoop 0=1-6

July 6 Sating 2 hoops on a Cedar tub 0=1-0

–George Dods Papers, MSS 9001-D Box 4, Folder 2, RIHS Library.

Poudering or powdering tubs were used for salting meat; satting is how Mr Dods spelled setting, and the firking is a firkin. His spelling was idiosyncratic but consistent.

Enslaved Girl 1830 Origin: America, Virginia, Arlington County Primary Support: 6 x 4 1/8in. (15.2 x 10.5cm) Watercolor, pencil, and ink on wove paper Museum Purchase Acc. No. 2007-34,1

Enslaved Girl, 1830
America, Virginia, Arlington County
Watercolor, pencil, and ink on wove paper
Museum Purchase Acc. No. 2007-34,1

So, 1813: a cedar tub. But was it for laundry? I found well buckets and house buckets, ‘poudering’ tubs and pounding barrels, barrels for meat and rum and ‘flower,’ cedar tubs and a ‘tub for Cora,’ but no tub specifically described as a laundry, washing or dish tub.

Searching local library and special collections databases using the appropriate Library of Congress subject terms proved fruitless as well, though eventually I ended up at Williamsburg, where I found an 1830 watercolor drawing of an enslaved girl with a tub on her head. (They call it a tub; you and I might call it a piggin.) This at least confirmed the persistence of the tub style seen in the 1785 British Encampment drawing. I suppose that’s something.

Domestic Engineering and the Journal of Mechanical Contracting, Vol. LX No. 6, page 160. 1912

But still, questions persisted: first, what wood would be right, and secondly, what size should the tub be? There was the thought that pine might not be right, since reputable coopers are making tubs from oak and cedar. Finally did what most of us do when frustrated now: I did a very simple Google search and ended up at Google Books with Domestic Engineering and the Journal of Mechanical Contracting, Volume 60. 

This journal helpfully informed me that Wooden tubs are made out of 1- 1/4 inch white pine grained or dovetailed together at the ends and held together by means of iron rods and went on to explain that Great latitude was generally allowed in the making of wooden tubs as they were usually made on the premises by the carpenter who had no standards to follow. No standards! Doesn’t that explain a lot.

Fully loaded for Saratoga

Do I have any clearer direction? Well, clear as mud, maybe. It appears that one could have a tub of unspecified wood, hooped with wood or metal, in which one could do laundry. Or one could follow Domestic Engineering, and consider the current pine tub acceptable, if perhaps in need of mending. (I have not seen it, so I do not know.) I suppose the question is really whether or not all of this business will fit into the supply wagon known as our Subaru.