Army laundresses were the unsung heroines of the 1800s American military. Patterned after their British counterparts, these women got their start as camp followers. They received official recognition in 1802, thus becoming part of the American Army. Initially, laundresses were appointed at the rate of four laundresses per 100 men. That later changed to one laundress per 19 1/2 men. The captain of each company appointed each laundress.
For the most part they were hard working, honest women. Yet one hears little about them, and the important role that they played in the Frontier armies of the United States. These pages will give you a glimpse of these women, their lives, their families, and their role in history.
The laundresses were the only women recognized by the United States Army. They received the same rations as the men and were provided a place to live. The rations varied over the years, as did their pay.
Rations and Pay
At the time of their recognition in 1802, laundresses recieved a ration of meat, bread and whiskey. Any other food had to be obtained from other sources. This changed over time. Later rations may have included salt pork, dry beans, coffee, brown sugar, flour, and 12 pounds of bedding straw once a month.
The laundresses were also issued a few common household items. These were issued for each group of four women. The men had to share these items in groups of six. They were allotted one common tent, a hatchet, a camp kettle, and two mess pans. Again, the items issued changed over time.
The rate of pay for laundresses varied with time and locale. It was determined by the Post Council of Administration. There were different rates for enlisted men and officers. The laundresses pay from the enlisted men was deducted at the pay table. Officers were responsible for paying their debt directly to the laundress.
At Fort Wayne, IN in 1812 laundresses were paid 25 cents per dozen items when she provided the soap, and 14 cents per dozen if the soldier provided the soap.
At Fort Crawford, WI in 1851 the rate was 50 cents per week for two shirts, two pair of underdrawers, and two pair of socks. Great coats and blankets were washed for 12 1/2 cents each, although this rate later increased to 25 cents.
At Fort Ridgely, MN, year unknown, enlisted men paid 75 cents per month, while officers paid $3.00 per month.
At Camp Nichols, OK, year unknown, enlisted men paid $1.00 per month.
At Fort Boise, ID, in 1866 enlisted men paid $2.00 per month, while officers paid the princely sum of $5.00 per month.
At Fort Concho, TX, year unknown, the sum varied from $1.00 to $4.00 per month, depending on the rank of the enlisted man.
At Fort Scott, KS, in 1846 the laundresses received 50 cents per month per soldier.
The End of the Line
Laundresses were phased out of the military army in the early 1880s. There were arguments for and against keeping these ladies as part of the frontier army in the 1870s. Some felt they were a civilizing influence on the enlisted men. Others felt they were more bother than they were worth. The latter faction won the argument, and by 1882, the laundresses were no longer being officially appointed. However, there is evidence that laundresses continued their jobs even after being phased out by the army.