Research Rabbithole: Laundry Bluing

I’m guessing like most people, I only have a vague idea of how laundry was done before electric washing machines. I know about washboards and scrubbing by hand, but other than that, I really couldn’t say what you’re supposed to do. I mean, what kind of detergent did they use? No idea. (Not that I really know what’s in the detergent I use today, either!)

But “bluing” laundry is one thing that has been mentioned in a number of older books that in the past and I have glossed over it without really worrying that I had no idea what it was. This week I was reading Grampa in Oz by Ruth Plumly Thompson, however, and the wild tribe of washerwomen attack Dorothy with, among other things, bottles of bluing and it got me wondering what on earth that is.

Mrs. Stewarts Liquid Bluing is still available

So, I did some research! Bluing is a substance that literally adds a bit of blue dye to white fabrics to make them whiter. It’s sometimes a solid, but usually it’s sold as a liquid made up of Prussian Blue dye suspended in water to make a solution. The idea here is that as white fabrics get dingy, they tend to take on a gray or yellowish tinge. Using the basic principles of color mixing, blue cancels out yellow and makes the fabric appear whiter again. Apparently when white fabrics are manufactured, they usually include some blue dye for this purpose. But the dye fades out after a while and things get dingy anyway. Bluing lets you put the dye back and hold off dinging to make fabrics last longer.

If you put blue dye directly onto your white sheets, of course, it will leave a blue stain. The dye is already diluted a little in the bottle when you buy it in liquid form, but you have to dilute it further in the wash, so this is added during the rinse cycle. Apparently it also doesn’t really work in the modern high-efficiency washing machines many people (including me) have today that use less water. To use it in those, you have to dilute it further before adding it to the wash cycle at all.

I have no idea how it’s supposed to help colors, but this ad claims it does!

So why don’t we use this as much today? Well, it is still available, so you can still use it. But most people today choose to use bleach instead. Bleach doesn’t run the risk of staining anything blue and it’s generally easier to use. The downside of bleach is that it’s much more corrosive and eats away at fabric a lot faster than bluing does, meaning it keeps things white, but also makes them not last as long. And don’t mix them. Apparently they don’t play well together!

I’m kind of intrigued by this product which apparently used to be so ubiquitous with doing laundry that fantasy washerwomen chase Dorothy threatening to blue her, but which I had never really known about before other than as a word associated with laundry in books written before about 1950. There are websites still touting it as the best way to keep whites white, though, and Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing is apparently readily available in grocery stores around the United States (other brands exist as well, but some are more difficult to find).

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