Quick Reference

There are a number of beliefs about washing, either the person or clothes, some of which are still current. It was considered unlucky, all over the country, for two people to use the same water to wash their hands. The specific result usually quoted is that they will quarrel, and there are two remedies advised—for one of them to make the sign of the cross with their hand over the water, or for one or both to spit in the water. The belief is at least as old as the 17th century, as John Aubrey (1686: 99) includes it, and Opie and Tatem mention another reference from 1652. For 19th-century examples, see N&Q 4s:8 (1871), 505; 8s:9 (1896), 425. At a much earlier date, washing hands with someone while reciting a particular psalm was published as a cure for the ague (Scot, 1584). Presumably as an extension to the shared washing rule, it was reported from Devonshire that it was unlucky for two persons to wipe themselves upon a towel at the same time (N&Q 10s:12 (1909), 66). Cuthbert Bede, writing in N&Q (1s:12 (1855), 489) reported a Worcestershire servant girl who was convinced she could not successfully kill anything (e.g. the chicken she was plucking) until she had washed her face, implying that this was a well-known fact. Henderson (1879: 113) reports exactly the same belief from Durham.

Robert Herrick has another admonition to servant maids on the subject of washing hands:Unwasht hands, ye Maidens, knowDead the fire, though ye below(Hesperides, 1648)

(Hesperides, 1648)

and also how far to throw the water out of the door, the further the better to keep out the ‘evil spright’.

More dangerous was to wash clothes at the wrong time. In fishing communities there was (and still is in some families) a strict taboo against washing clothes on the day a family-member has set sail, or on certain other inauspicious days, because such an action would ‘wash him overboard’ or even sink his ship (Gill, 1993: 15–20, 105–6). One of the most inauspicious days for washing was Good Friday. Clothes hung out on that day would be spotted with blood, and a story is told that Jesus cursed a woman who was washing clothes as he passed by on the way to Calvary (Henderson, 1879: 82). Similarly, New Year's Day was another on which no washing should be attempted, and washing blankets in May was also considered unlucky. Good house-wifely practice was recommended in a rhyme which was known in various versions all over the country:They that wash on Monday, have all the week to dryThey that wash on Tuesday, are not so much awryThey that wash on Wednesday, are not so much to blameThey that wash on Thursday, wash for shameThey that wash on Friday, wash in needThey that wash on Saturday, Oh! They're sluts indeed.(Yorkshire, N&Q 5s:7 (1877), 139)

(Yorkshire, N&Q 5s:7 (1877), 139)

See also SOAP.

Opie and Tatem, 1989: 424–6;Henderson, 1879; N&Q 5s:7 (1877), 26, 108, 139, 378;5s:8 (1877), 77.


Reference entries