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Doing the Big Laundry in Korea

Despite the fact that streets and roads were rather muddy in Korea in the early 20th century, Koreans always wore impeccably clean clothes.

The higher classes wore traditional colorful ramie (China grass) clothes in summer and silk for the rest of the year. By law, the lower classes were allowed only cotton; only festive clothes showed pale colors.

Washing, starching and ironing of clothes was hard women’s work and took a great part of the housework; up to the late 1950ies, laundering clothes in the river was common in the countryside. During the day, the women cleaned the laundry in the river at special washing areas with broad flat stones.

Water filtered through rice straw served as a detergent. The laundry was worked with laundry beaters and rinsed in the river. Even in winter, the laundry was cleaned in the river after the ice at the washing area was broken.

In the evenings the "ironing hours" started. Two women kneeled on the floor facing each other, in the middle lay the flat "ironing stone" (tatumi-dol). With round wooden beaters, they beat the folded clothing to get out he creases. This rhythmic sound, together with the songs of the women, was part of the evening background noise in every village and city.

Thin parts of the clothing like collars or ribbons were covered with rice gruel and ironed with a small flatiron heated in hot charcoal.

Cleaning of ceremonial embroidered silk clothing or padded winter clothing was even more demanding. The seams were undone and with the paddings removed, all single parts were washed carefully. After drying and ironing, the padding was put in place and the parts were seamed together.