Doing laundry wasn't easy for the thousands of men and the very few women who arrived in California during the Gold Rush.

In order to wash your own clothes in San Francisco, you had to buy water, paying 25 cents for two buckets' worth. Then, of course, it wasn't manly to do your own laundry. So, many men sent their dirty clothes to be laundered in China.

However, some entrepreneurs figured out that washing clothes was a profitable way to make a living.

Laundries became a growth industry, and a lot of that growth was centered in Washer Woman's Bay, a pond in what is now the Marina district of San Francisco.

The Daily Alta California, on Feb. 14, 1851, described it as a "pretty little laguna between the city of San Francisco and the military post at the Presidio."

"Around the borders of the Lake are hung articles floating in the breeze that upon first appearance might be taken for a general collection of flags of all nations who have met on this beautiful spot in a general convention," it stated. "The romance is destroyed however when we find that instead of flags they are shirts, pillow cases, sheets and unmentionables that are hung there to dry from the various laundries that surround the laguna."

Three years later the Daily Alta advised San Franciscans to look at the lagoon to see what had happened. A new road had been built from Portsmouth Square to the Presidio.

While there was a lot of farming done around the 9-acre lake, the main industry was washing clothes. Close to 300 people were employed.


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"Two hundred Chinese, 50 Mexicans, 15 Hindoos, 15 French, and the remainder Americans and Germans," the Daily Alta reported on April 24, 1854.

The men worked at a table set on a wooden walkway that led into the lagoon.

"They dip an article of clothing into the lagoon, stretch it out on the table, rub it with soap and then grab one end and whip it back and forth on the table and then do the same grabbing the other end," the paper stated.

This was repeated several times. Shirts were given an extra scrubbing with a brush of split hickory, "a process which takes off all the dirt and a good deal of the shirt," the paper reported.

The mechanical laundry was operated by a Hawley and Thomas steam engine and run by what the paper considered "Americans."

The washing machine consisted of two square boxes, which revolved on an axle. The clothes fell from side to side in hot water and soap. Shirts and fine clothes were finished by hand.

Table linens and sheets went into a big ribbed cylinder, which revolved twice a minute. They then went through a wringer and were hung out to dry and finally ironed by a heavy rotating roller.

The clothing was put in baskets and delivered back to the customers. Collection and delivery of laundry happened twice a day.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.