No, I'm not suggesting we all wander around in stinky or obviously dirty clothes. But there's no doubt that before automatic washing machines became popular people - including Americans - washed their clothes much less often. It was simply too much work to do laundry more than once a week. So how did the housewife of old - who probably had more kids than you do and whose work and life was messier because of lack of modern conveniences - manage to wash so infrequently?
The first important thing to note is that "in the old days," almost everyone had five different types of clothes:
* School or work clothes.
* Play clothes.
* Church or special occasion clothes.
The average middle-class family might have two or three outfits in each category, tops. So, obviously, there were fewer clothes to launder and therefore less laundry to do.
But it was the way they wore these clothes that saved the most labor and money. Kids wore school clothes only to school. When they came home from school, they removed their school clothes and hung them up to allow them to air out. Then they put on their play clothes.
They often had only one set of "good" church clothes, which were worn only while at church or during special occasions, like weddings. This outfit was washed infrequently since it was typically worn only a few hours per week.
Nightgowns or pajamas were worn every night for a week before they were washed. They weren't worn for lounging before bedtime or during morning play or breakfast. As soon as a child got out of bed, she took off her nightclothes and stored them for bedtime.
Adults handled their wardrobe similarly.
Now, I'm not necessarily suggesting you and your family have such limited wardrobes (although cutting back on clothes is probably a great idea that will save you time and money). I am suggesting we don't generally need to wash clothes that have been worn for only a few hours. To do so, frankly, shows how spoiled we are. What a waste of resources, time, energy, and money! I'm also suggesting that instead of wearing one set of clothes all day long, we adopt the practice of switching into work or play clothes, as needed to spare the laundry pile and our clothing budgets.
My Challenge to You
So here's my challenge for you this week: See how few clothes you can reasonably wash. Wear an apron while cooking - and perhaps even while housekeeping or doing garden chores. Change from good clothes into play clothes as soon as possible. If you know you'll be doing a particularly dirty job, change into some older clothes first. Wear your nightclothes repeatedly.
I think you'll find your life is less stressful and more simple. And you'll be a better steward.
A version of this post first appeared in January of 2011.