The Viennese laundry girls must have been a funny crowd – lively, bustling, and never at a loss for a cheeky answer. This is the image we have of them after over a hundred years and for which they loved their contemporaries.
One only reads once how Vincenz Chiavacci described them in his sketches from Vienna: “The handling of the soap foam also seems to exert a regenerating force on the heart and mind, as well as on physical well-being. Where else would the many buxom, healthy girl figures with the loud humor and the cheeky mouth come from?” 1
Today, of course, these “girls” have long since disappeared from the cityscape of Vienna. There are only a few old pictures left in which they encounter us in their characteristic costumes, with the headscarf tied back and, on their backs, the clothes crax, from which the clothes hung to the side.
“When these ‘Venus women’ walk through the streets with a rucksack full of snow-white, beautifully flattened goods, their chestnut-brown hair decorated with cheeky hair knots, their tight little skirts up to their knees, their legs impeccable and delicately dressed; one can see from all their behaviour that they are aware of their value, and the cheeky looks of the young master world are parried by them with a defiant smile ready for battle. Woe betide the daring, who dares a cheeky little word, a bold intrusiveness; a flood of selected nicknames, which cannot be found in any encyclopaedia, is his reward; every word an English penknife.” 2
However, behind this consciously launched image of the “Viennese washer girl” as the epitome of joie de vivre and mother wit stood a harsh reality – one that was cruel, mean, and full of hardships.
In both summer and winter, they had to start working long before sunrise. For up to 16 hours they stood in dusky laundry rooms, ready to sort the laundry, soap it, walk and knock it, and, finally, hang it up and flatten it.
The reward was a few pennies – barely enough to survive.
Nevertheless, despite all the hardships, they seemed to have kept their cheerful characters. Maybe that was their way of dealing with this difficult life. In any event, they were known for it and, in the course of time, something like an independent culture developed out of it.
Their small pleasures and celebrations, especially the laundry girl balls, soon became well-known attractions in the city, to which the good citizens, as well as the sons of the old Viennese nobility, aspired.
Yet in the course of industrialisation and the spread of the washing machine, the laundry girls finally had to give way to progress. The only things that remind us of them today are a few old pictures, a few anecdotes, and a wonderful dessert that bears their name.
More about the history of Viennese cuisine (including the most delicious recipes) can be found in my new book:
1 ….. Aus Alt- und Neu-Wien, Skizzen aus dem Wiener Volksleben, Vincenz Chiavacci, Verlag Adolf Bonz
2 ….. Verschwundene Arbeit: Das Buch der untergegangenen Berufe, Rudi Palla, Brandstätter Verlag