Starchy Grandma

Starch:  Most of us have not given a thought to the process of starching laundry or even using spray starch during this year of lockdown. I suggest starch has been given short shrift. No one has bothered with a shirt let alone a starched shirt. 

Before wheat or potato starch, we apparently used the root of cuckoo pint arum maculatum also known as the starch plant. 

Gerard records in his Herbal, that the nuns of Syon Abbey were using it to starch altar cloths because it nicely whitened as well as stiffened the cloth. Then ‘starch for kerchiefs’ was listed in a 1440 dictionary. Gerard also records that the cuckoo pint root ‘was most hurtful for the hands of the laundress that have the handling of it, for it chappeth and blistereth and taketh the hands rough and rugged and withall smarting’.   

Yes, I bet it did smart.

In Elizabethan times, starched ruffs were a sign of the elite. Distinctions of class, rank and profession were maintained by the clothes people wore. When wheat starch was discovered, ruffs were made bigger and wider. These status differences travelled over in the Mayflower to the first colonies. As a reminder goffering irons that make those ironed concertina folds have recently been dug up at an archaeological site near Jamestown in Virginia. So women had to keep up the home country rules of society, even when pioneering. (The word goffer means to crimp or frill by the way). At the time of the colonisation it was considered that keeping the hierarchy was an important part of a new settlement. Ironically, (for an ironing product), when the settlement was starving, the highest born men had an advantage. They were able to eat their own ruff starch, as a gluey porridge. 

We can laugh, but matrons and sister’s uniforms had complicated headpieces that needed starching not so long ago. 

 I want to bring the subject of starch to your attention as an example of the value or not, of women’s work and effort. In particular women’s work as a value in itself, supported by encouraged by and even insisted upon by the patriarchy. 

‘If a woman was defined by her ability to rear the next generation’ writes Judith Flanders in her interesting book, The Making of Home ‘and her house was the crucible that shaped these children, then the woman’s ability to keep the house became central’. The upkeep she says was seen to be in part labour but also a measure of the housewife’s morality. Purchasing readymade products in the Victorian times of the 1860s were frowned upon. Advice books warned against readymade products because they replaced labour. ‘It is not half as cheap’ they vaguely advised women. I like this example of starch. Starch in 1842 was manufactured and available in the shops. It worked as well as the laboriously homemade starch made by processing potato peel and was actually cheaper. However the advice from magazines was that it was better to make it yourself at home. Not specifically better, just better, as if your own fair hands made a better product’.

This is what you would need to have done before any shirt was brought to the ironing table.

Recipe to Make Starch from Potato Peelings:

Line a colander with two layers of cheese cloth and place the colander over the bowl.

Grate the potato, using the smallest set of holes on the grater, into the cheesecloth.

Fold the ends of the cheesecloth up and over the potatoes to cover.

Press down on the cheesecloth until the starchy liquid from the potatoes drains into the bowl.

Open the cheesecloth and pour 1/2 cup of water over the potatoes.

Cover again with the cheesecloth and squeeze the potatoes to drain into the bowl.

Repeat steps 5 and 6 with the remaining 1/2 cup of water.

Place two cans on top of the cheesecloth and leave them for 1 to 2 hours to squeeze more starch from the potatoes.

Remove the colander and discard the cheesecloth with the potatoes.

Carefully pour the liquid into a separate bowl without disturbing the starch that has settled at the bottom of the first bowl.

Discard the liquid and let the remaining potato starch dry before using.

 Looking back it is easy to see the flaw in the argument that the harder the work, the better the result. I mean we all get the magic of the ‘made by hand’ when its jam or knitting, but when easily wipeable tablecloths were considered to lead to uncleanliness one has to stop and say, ‘wait a minute, who is saying that and who the heck is doing all the work here? 

It was ‘said’ and we don’t know exactly who said it, Mothers? Grandmothers? people filling up space in the popular new magazines? that: ‘Convenience in housekeeping leads to dirt and carelessness’. It is true that dirt without antibiotics, then, was more dangerous than dirt now. The fear of carelessness though? This sounds like a worry that the slippery slope of carelessness would lead to impurity and the embracing of the sweet carefree. The over-arching notion of Christian living wasn’t to encourage you to enjoy life. The clear (and stiffly upright) concept that comes across the years is that the value of housekeeping was somehow measured in the amount of elbow grease, the sheer brute force of effort, a woman put into it. Keeping women out of mischief is another line of thinking we could consider.  

Is it possible that the oppression of doing empty futile work, is partly why housekeeping has got a bad name? Futility… no one likes a futile job. That is why pointless jobs like treadmills were introduced into prisons, as punishment to break a convict’s spirit. 

Published by marycane

A PhD student at the Elphinstone Institute Aberdeen Scotland. I am studying the experience of being a contemporary grandmother. In particular I am interested in how those grandmothers, whose family live far away, are passing on their family history.

3 thoughts on “Starchy Grandma

  1. Yes times have changed however we are now wanting our food to come from paddock to plate and by pass all the ready packaged convenience food. Well a growing number are. Lets just hope we don’t have a trend back to the hard work house work you describe ! I think we probably have too many household gadgets now. In a Montessori setting children are still taught how to scrub tables, sweep the floor and outside paths, rake up leaves, wash windows and fold table napkins. Its very calming and most children enjoy these seemingly mundane routines. For awhile anyway !


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