My son is an inquisitive little boy. We’ve had so many discussions about how people used to have to grow their own food, how grocery stores came into existence, how you used to have wait for your photos to be developed, and how when I was little there was no such thing as an iPhone. Recently we got on the topic of laundry and how folks many, many years ago used to take their clothes to a local stream, beat them against rocks, dip them in the water a few times, and hand wring them to remove the excess water. You should have seen the look on his face. The questions started flying.
I found this article, and we sat down and read it together. I showed him photos of washhouses and of a wringer washer similar to what my grandmother used. As we talked, I ran across something I’d heard of but never used or even knew how to use – bluing. We’ve talked before about how whites tend to yellow over time. We shared suggestions on how you might combat that yellowing. One option we didn’t discuss is ‘bluing’, an old-fashioned product that was once an essential item in all laundry rooms. How does it work? Well, remember that white is not a color. White fabrics are bleached during manufacture and then treated with optical brightness. Those treatments create the illusion of whiteness by enhancing the fabric’s absorption of light, but with repeated uses of white linens or fabrics, dirt and stains damage the color. In the past, to offset the yellowing, bluing was added during the wash to increase the optical brightness, making the fabric look whiter and brighter.
Bluing has been around a long time. According to oldandinteresting.com, before modern laundry detergent, launderers would stir a little blue bag into the final rinse water on washday. From the mid-19th century on, a commercial version of bluing was manufactured. While bluing can still be found today, according to Wikipedia, it was most popular until the mid-20th century in the United Kingdom and the United States but is still readily in use in India and Pakistan today. The same article also reports that bluing has been replaced by bleach for its main purpose. But in my many conversations with Mike Feudale, I know that chlorine bleach doesn’t make things whiter; in the long run it actually breaks down the optical brightener in white dye and turns things yellow or brown.
Curiosity has gotten the best of me. According to my mom, my grandma used bluing. I suspect that if we were to poll our grandparents, we’d find that they are quite familiar with the concept. I’ve purchased a bottle of Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing so that I can see this old-fashioned tool in action.
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