Part 1 Profession: Laundress
Today we never think about throwing a load of laundry in the washing machine with our choice of detergent and fabric softener. Nor do we give any thought to shopping for that special event or finding the latest sale at our favorite store or online site. We even have a term for feeling good while shopping “retail therapy”. I thought I would focus this 2-part installment on the great women in our family. There were limited choices open to women in the 19th century for survival. Starting with Jane Gilbert Mitchell Brooks (about 1775 – 1887) who was a Free Person of Color (FPOC), to Laura Mitchell (1842 -?), and Sarah “Sallie” Brooks Keen (1819 – 1888). We will then look at Katie Broyle Rainey (1848-?) who was a slave brought from Virginia, to Mary Louise” Mollie” Reid Bell (1861 – 1938), and Annie Laura Bell Steele (1895–1978). Each of these women while dealing with the harsh conditions of the time, had a skill that enabled them survive and even purchase property.
In 1819 a law was enacted in the state of Georgia requiring FPOC to register with the clerk of the inferior court in their county or risk being sold into slavery. FPOC had to have a sponsor or agent to vouch that they were indeed free. We first see Jane Gilbert and her daughter Jane Mitchell (later McComb and mother of Laura Mitchell) on the 1842 tax rolls with John J. Mitchell listed as their agent. John J. Mitchell was the son of David Brydie Mitchell the 3 times elected governor of Georgia from Scotland. We are not sure of the relationship but Jane Mitchell (McComb) is possibly the daughter of David B. Mitchell or Laura Mitchell is the daughter of John J. Mitchell. Either way based on the connection from the tax rolls it shows that there was an important relationship there. Jane Gilbert and Laura Mitchell (listed as Brooks) show up again listed on the 1860 census as FPOC, profession washerwomen. Jane’s property value is listed as $250 and personal value at $100. Laura’s property value is $150 and personal value at $125. This may not seem like a lot of money but according to the census of the time there were only 46 free women of color that owned real estate in Georgia in 1860. This number increases to 223 in 1870. To put it in perspective there were 466,000 Blacks (free and slave) in Georgia recorded on the 1860 census. Although they were below the average in real estate property holding of $1065, it was still a big accomplishment. http://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/L_Schweninger_Property_1990.pdf (Census information on free females and property
There was a cost of being a FPOC in Milledgeville, GA. In 1828 not only were real and property tax levied, there was an additional tax for all trades and professions. This tax varied from $6 to $16 according to age and sex. It was noted in James C. Bonner book Milledgeville Georgia’s Antebellum Capital that there were special treatments of certain washerwomen. I wonder if he was referring to Jane and Laura? To live in town FPOC were charged an additional tax of $50 per year. On the 1860 census 100 FPOC lived in town. I believe this included Jane and her family.
The work itself was grueling and required long hours in the hot sun. It was all done by hand until the invention of the washing machine in 1850. Remember just because the device was invented did not mean everyone could afford one and the work was still difficult because the machines were hand cranked.
Washing consisted of using two wooden washtubs heated over fire. There were various detergents available for sale but many of the washerwomen opted to make their own. Ashes, starch, lye, or soap were used to help remove stains. The clothes were scrubbed on metal boards and or beat and moved about with a paddle or plunger. Brushes and other tools were used to literally beat the dirt out of the clothes. They were then dried and in many cases ironed before completing their long day.
Tools of the trade
I am not sure how long Jane Gilbert worked in this profession. I have her listed on the 1880 census living with Laura and Warren Bell. She died on October 11, 1887 leaving 13 children, 11 grandchildren (Bell’s and Steele’s), 44 great grandchildren, and one great great grandchild. I am still researching where Jane came from and who the other children were. She was written up in the newspaper twice, once for being the oldest person in the county and again when she died. For anyone doing research The Dead Book has Jane listed as James Brooks age 108. Thanks to our cousin Kathy we have the copy of the purchase of the coffin by Frank and Charlie Steele.
You can get a better view of this document from the blog post dated July 31, 2013 from the Google doc link.
There are more details about Jane from previous blog post, which also includes the newspaper articles.
Laura Mitchell married Warren Bell and had 6 children. Edward Bell is listed on the 1860 census as Edward Brooks. I am not sure why Warren Bell is not listed. It was brought to my attention that he was a traveling musician with his brother so perhaps he was on the road during this time (thank you Barbara and Roslyn). He is listed on the 1870 census with Jane McComb (mother to Laura) as a waiter in a hotel. The rest of the children were Warren (1862), George (1864), Ella (1867), Annie (1870), and Frank (1872). One interesting tidbit, there is a woman that matched my DNA as a third cousin whose grandmother is a Bell. All of her family hails from Alabama though. She said there is a large group of Bell’s from Alabama. She is from the UK. Perhaps Warren Bell’s family originally came from Alabama.
Thanks to these industrious women we have documentation of our families journey. Never take for granted how easy it is to do laundry!
Part 2 of this story will be the ladies in our family that were seamstress. Please continue to let me know any new information that you might come across in your research. For anyone wanting to read previous blogs here is the website http://www.steelebell.blogspot.com/
Last thing I have a few photos I thought I would share to see if anyone might have clues as to how they relate to our family. This photo was found in the desk drawer of Des Steele. We are not sure if this is someone in our family or just a friend. Either way it is a great part of Milledgeville history. Let me know if anyone has any clues! At the bottom of the photo it says City Market. The sign inside the store says City Meat Market.
I hope everyone is healthy as we begin the latter part of the year and holiday season!! Thanks, T