Army Laundresses

U.S. Army laundresses, often wives of senior enlisted men, were once given daily rations, quarters, fuel, bedding straw, and medical services. An article in Nebraska History magazine (Winter 1980) reported on the “ladies of Soap Suds Row,” who not only washed for soldiers on Nebraska and other western military posts, but provided social contact and occasional nursing care as well.

The United States Army had adopted the institution of company washerwomen from the British, giving them legal recognition in 1802. An act passed by Congress in that year allowed four laundresses to a company with one daily ration to be issued to each. Enlisted men and officers paid for their laundry at a rate determined by the post council of administration. In general, laundry rates established by post councils reflected the average wage scales for unskilled labor at most military posts. For example, the Fort Boise, Idaho, post council in 1866 set laundry rates at two dollars monthly for officers and one dollar monthly for enlisted men.

Living quarters for laundresses ranged from substandard to the barely adequate. Fort Sidney, Nebraska, in 1872 had laundress quarters measuring 71 feet by 140 feet. Constructed of cement and stone with shingle roofs, they were designed to accommodate three families. Seventeen years later in 1887 the post surgeon condemned the laundress housing then in use because of “poisonous” sanitary conditions. Fort Robinson in the late 1880s had a better maintained area for laundry work and offered an enlisted man, his laundress wife, and children a section of a 144-by-35-foot building built for twelve families.

Laundresses often performed other services besides washing clothes for enlisted men and officers. They served as part-time cooks and maids in the officers’ quarters and functioned as midwives and nurses. Their laundry fees and the extra rations they drew, enabled the soldier’s family to live more comfortably. However, the cost of providing rations, fuel, quarters (and transportation when soldier husbands were reassigned) gradually convinced the U.S. Army to discontinue the service of laundresses. Official recognition of laundresses was discontinued when the authority to issue rations to them expired on June 18, 1883, and was not renewed.

(August 2003) 

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

Other Publications

The Bachelors’ Protective Union of Kearney

When the Bachelors' Protective Union gave a gala reception for two of its newly married, former members and their brides in March of 1890, the social club for young, ...

U.S. Weather Bureau in 1890s Nebraska

The U.S. Weather Bureau was established by an act of Congress on October 1, 1890. It took over the weather service that had been established in the office of the Chief ...

Canning the Way to Victory

During American participation in World War I the U.S. Food Administration, under the direction of Herbert Hoover, launched a massive campaign to persuade Americans to ...

The Shoemaker’s Ashes

"Edward Kuehl, one of the most peculiar characters that ever lived in Omaha, or anywhere else, was found dead in his bed last night in the back room of his place of ...

Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger Foreward

Red Dog, an Oglala Lakota who lived at the Red Cloud Agency, Nebraska, 1876-77 (Nebraska State Historical Society   In the summer of 1876, following the ...

Darryl F. Zanuck

Darryl F. Zanuck Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979), a native Nebraskan, produced some of Hollywood's most important and controversial films. He helped found 20th Century Fox ...

The Burlington’s Profitable Pork Special

Nebraska railroads were much concerned with developing an adequate economy in the areas they served. The Burlington, for example, had a long history of caring for the ...

Bungalow Filling Stations

After the giant Standard Oil Company was broken into thirty-four separate companies in 1911, the newly independent Standard Oil of Nebraska dominated the state's market ...

The Bull Fight

This is the perfect time of year for a visit to the old fishin' hole. But a group of fisherfolk from Plainview discovered that this bucolic pastime sometimes has ...

Buffalo Soldiers West

African-American soldiers on the western frontier are the focus of an exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln. Buffalo Soldiers West, on loan from the Colorado ...

Protection for Buffalo

The extermination of the buffalo on the Plains occurred largely between 1870 and 1885. The Nebraska State Journal of Lincoln on February 1, 1874, editorialized in vain ...

Buffalo Hunting

In late October 1877 young Rolf Johnson and three friends left their homes in Phelps County, Nebraska, for a buffalo hunt in northeastern Colorado. The hunt was not very ...
About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast.

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.