The Imagery of Laundresses in 19th Century French Culture

Posted by: Joan Braderman

The following written by Eunice Lipton is an excerpt from her article that appeared in “HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics,” Issue # 6, “On Women and Violence.”  It is featured here courtesy of Joan Braderman, a founding member of HERESIES

Long before I understood the meaning of “ideology,” I had unwittingly begun to observe and remark its machinations in my research as an art historian. I was working on Degas and his social milieu and was particularly interested in how his upper-class status affected the transformation of social realities in his art. That is, I wondered how his wealth and customs, for example, affected his view of laundresses, milliners, dancers, prostitutes and so forth. In order to assess his transformation, I began to do extensive research on contemporary labor realities. The first profession I investigated was laundering. I found that the realities of the trade were far indeed from any visual depictions that I found either by Degas or the myriad other artists who depicted the subject.

By the end of the 19th century there were a few factory-size laundries in France, but the majority of shops were still small, with one to four workers. Women were employed almost exclusively. Although a law of 1900 fixed a 10-hour day for all women and children under 18, family establishments could not be monitored, and so in the small shops the women continued to work up to 15 and even’18 hours a day, rising at 5 A.M. and working till 11 P.M. 1 Unemployment was chronic. And when laundresses worked it was backbreaking and paid little. Ironers maneuvered 5-pound irons in devastating heat; washerwomen trudged through the city balancing 20 pounds of linen on their hips. The ironers were the better paid and more regularly employed of the two; they were the artisans or skilled laborers of the trade.

In 1881 a laundress earned an average of 3.25 francs a day. Milliners and women’s tailors earned between 5 and 10 francs; embroiderers, 4.25; lacemakers, 3; seamstresses, 2; unskilled chemical matchmakers and candlemakers, 1.25 to 1.50 francs; a doctor with a modest income, 20 francs; and an owner of a cotton-spinning factory, five thousand francs. 2 How specifically did laundresses live on their income?

Laundresses conditions; they were ghastly! Although one art critic described laundry shops as “clean-smelling shops gaily decorated with hanging gown, shirts, sheets and towels,” 3 that was a fiction. The shops were stiflingly hot, and were incubators of disease. Ninety out of every 100 laundresses lived in two rooms; one where they ironed, the other where they slept. Quarters were cramped, living conditions unhealthy. In the majority of cases there was no kitchen; food was prepared and eaten in the rooms where dirty laundry was counted, marked, sorted and later ironed. The stench was awful. Dust and other particles released during sorting contaminated the air, which was constantly heated by the furnace which kept the irons hot. 4 Emile Zola in L ‘Assommoir evokes the slow heat of the work day:

By now the really hot weather had begun. One June afternoon, a Saturday when there was a lot of urgent work, Gervaise herself stoked the stove up with coke, and there were ten irons heating round the roaring flue-pipe … The heat was enough to kill you. The street door had been left open, but not a breath of air came in … all sounds had stopped and in the oppressive silence the only thing to be heard was the dull thud of irons.5

The incidence of disease was staggering.  Laundresses were chronically ill with TB, bronchitis and inflammation of the abdomen and throat. 6 Because the law was! Powerless to affect small family-run businesses, it was healthier, paradoxically, to work in a factory than in a small shop.

Laundresses also suffered from alcoholism, as did workers in general. The women felt they needed strong drink to fortify them while they worked, and employers, in order, they believed, to increase the ironer’s output, provided stimulants like wine and brandy.7 Laundresses began drinking at II A.M. and continued all day. Wine merchants encouraged the washerwomen ‘by setting up canteens at the door of public wash-houses and sometimes within the wash-houses themselves. 8 It is said that these women “died at about fifty or sixty, worn out by chronic drinking, general paralysis, or acute rheumatism.” 9

Lacking memoirs or any other writing by the laundresses themselves, the most reliable sources of information are the labor reports. 10 One would be tempted, however, to consider also as data the many paintings, prints, photos and stories about laundresses. That would be a mistake. For these artifacts of middle-class culture depict a laundress we would hardly recognize.

Art salons in Paris from 1865 to the end of the century regularly exhibited paintings with such titles as The Little Laundresses, The Queen of the Laundresses, Wash-house in the Park of Grandbourg. The laundresses depicted are dexterous but more emphatically they are sexually alluring. (See

Edouard Menta’s Blanchisseuse (Laundress), 1892, and Edouard Zier’s La Petite Repasseuse Repassait (The Little Ironer Ironing), 1887. The emphasis is continually on the intimate nature of the work they do -undergarments and bedclothes abound. Also, ostensibly because of the work conditions, the women are in a state of semi-undress. The details of the painting are more or less suggestive, and one begins to sense that the apparent hard work is only a foil for disclosing intimate details of the women’s anatomy. The implicit sexual content of these works is made explicit by more popular prints such as La Repasseuse (The Ironer) of 1837 in which an old woman enters, surprising a younger woman ironer who has just (none too successfully) hidden a suitor under the bed.

Contemporary literature found the laundress equally beguiling. In 1877 Zola published L ‘Assommoir. The popularity of the book was due not merely to the attention paid to working-class life and the ravages of alcoholism, but also to the titillating nature of the material in general. The novel told the story of Gervaise, a laundress, whose taste for good food and drink led her to moral degradation, sexual promiscuity and financial ruin. Gervaise so lost her moral compass that she slept in turns under the same roof and before her daughter’s eyes, with both her former lover and her husband. In addition, Zola’s readers were treated to such workshop episodes as robust ironers undressing in hot weather, stunning male passersby with a “vision of bare-breasted women in a reddish mist.” 11 Significantly, L ‘Assommoir was Zola’s first popular success-a success which also firmly established the publishing house of Charpentier. Even popular histories like Octave Uzanne’s La Femme d Paris (1894) dwelt in a titillating manner on laundresses who are described as:

“…clean, coquettish, and often really pretty … It cannot be said that their souls are as immaculate as the linen they iron. These girls have a shocking reputation for folly and grossness…They haunt the outskirts of the city, are inveterate dancers, descend sometimes to the lowest forms of prostitution, and are also given to drink.  They do not hesitate sometimes to pawn their clients’ linen to pay for some piece of dissipation.” 12

George Montorgeuil, a contemporary writer of manners, concurs on their easy virtue and wonders in Le Caje-concert (1893) whether they aren’t deserting their own profession to join the even looser one·of cafe-concert dancers.13 So pervasively was a laundress thought of as a sexual object that even the fledgling photography business capitalized on it.

Those who examine the vision communicated by the paintings, prints, novels, etc., naturally tend to believe it. However, after one becomes familiar with the labor data, the cultural images look at best one sided, and at worst completely distorting. Left-wing contemporary critics of L ‘Assommoir were quick to realize this. Some criticized Zola “for slandering the people, for representing the working classes as a gang of drunks and laggards. 14Arthur Ranc in 1877 called Zola “a bourgeois in the worst sense of the word. He has for the people a bourgeois contempt, doubled by an artist’s contempt … Never has he presented manual work as other than repugnant.”15

Clearly, a discrepancy existed between the labor data and the cultural phenomenon. Why did the essential facts of working-class reality nearly vanish from middle-class cultural imagery? I maintain that the discrepancy was a symptom of contemporary bourgeois ideology concerning working-class women. That is, it was an attempt to “justify and hide a social-historical practice whose true significance lies elsewhere.”16 The women’s reality was effectively erased in the service of creating a myth, a myth, however, which had its kernel of truth, that bit of truth which is so crucial a dynamic in maintaining the prevailing ideologies. We know, for example, that laundresses picked up and delivered laundry in what could be viewed as the provocative intimacy of people’s homes. In addition they worked in devastating heat which forced them to violate Victorian standards of dress and “lady-like” conduct. Compared to French bourgeois women the laundresses’ sexual habits may well have been free. We know that the French bourgeois woman was very repressed sexually.17 One purpose that repression served was to maintain the institution of marriage; middle-class men went to prostitutes, and middle-class women embroidered and read novels. Working-class women on the other hand were not dependent on men for marriage and financial support; they earned their own money after all. Their sexual habits were not limited by the social demands of marriage. Zola therefore was not mistaken when he said in L ‘Assommoir that laundresses are not a prudish lot. 18

How can we explain, however, the exaggerated and nearly exclusive emphasis middle-class culture placed on the laundresses’ sexuality. Why, for example, does one so rarely find images like Daumier’s Washerwoman? Why is there not more of an emphasis on the sheer drudgery of the laundresses’ work? My real question is what purpose does this distortion serve ideologically? It does two things. It neutralizes middle-class fear and guilt toward workers, and it rationalizes middle-class exploitation of workers. In fact middle-class fear of the masses had greatly increased in 19th-century France. By the end of the century, working-class people were no longer merely victims; the mass uprisings in Paris during the Revolution of 1848 and the Commune of 1871 made that clear. The Paris Commune [writes E. J. HobsbawmJ was … important not so much for what it achieved as for what it forecast …. If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. 19

One shape bourgeois defensiveness took was disdain. Mentally, the bourgeoisie trivialized the poor; one way to do that was to sexualize them. In the case of the laundress in 19th century middle-class culture, the illusion that she was sensual, coquettish and without morals meant she did not have to be taken seriously; guilt about the quality of her work-life or fear of her potential anger was side-stepped. She posed no dangers. She could not possibly be a Eugénie Suétens, the accused laundress-incendiary of the Commune.20  She was merely a brute, if sometimes coquettish, sexual animal.

As long as laundresses were seen as immoral they clearly deserved to earn less and live in squalor; they weren’t worth more. This distortion of their reality legitimized their exploitation. It was therefore crucial to perpetuate this lie. There was nothing casual, then, about the middleclass cultural image of laundresses in 19th century France. It served very specific ideological ends.


  1. Marcel Frois, Les B/anchisseries-hygible et pratique du b/anchissage, (Paris, 1910), pp. 113, 116.
  2. This information was found respectively in Rene Gonnard, La Femme dans /’industrie (Paris, 19(6), p. 102; Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, Le Travai/ des femmes au XIXe siecle (Paris, 1888), pp. 11, 118; Theodore Zeldin, France /848-/945, Vol. I: Ambition, Love, Politics (Oxford, 1973), pp. 33, 69.
  3. Pierre Cabanne, Edgar Degas (New York/Paris, 1958), p. 51.
  4. Frois, pp. 97, 98.
  5. Emile Zola, L ‘Assommoir(London, 1970), p. 146; originally (Paris, 1876).
  6. Frois, p. 49.
  7. Leroy-Beaulieu, p. 114.
  8. Frois, p. 100. In general see Chapter 6, “alcoolisme et tuberculose,” pp. 100-104.
  9. Octave Uzanne, La Femme d Paris (New York/London, 1912), p. 71; originally (Paris, 1894).
  10. We must appreciate, however, how biased even. these must be, written as they are by middle-clas·s men scrutinizing the problems of an industry which in every way but practically, was alien and perhaps even repulsive to them.
  11. Zola, p. 159.
  12. Uzanne, pp. 71-72.
  13. Georges Montorgueil, Le Cap-concerl (Paris, 1893), p. 6.
  14. Alexandre Zevacs, 20/0 (Paris, 1945), p. 63.
  15. Ibid., pp. 63-64.
  16. Castoriadis, p. 36. The Church told bourgeois women that “the purpose of marriage was definitely not pleasure, but the constitution of families and the procreation of children … after procreation, continence by mutual consent in marriage was recommended as desirable.”
  17. Zeldin, p. 297.
  18. Zola, p. 245.
  19. E. J. Hobsbawm, TheAgeofCapita/, 1848-1875,(New York, 1975), p. 167.
  20. Edith Thomas, The Women Incendiaries (New York, 1966), pp. i76-177; originally (Paris, 1963

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