Laundry Soap for Bad Girls

When I was a teenager I was sent to live with the Nuns.  Well, it was the 70’s, NZ, and I was a pregnant convent girl from a big Catholic family with a sick mum.  This is where bad girls ended up, they said.

The Convent I was sent to was beautiful, old, fragrant, with wide corridors and huge sash windows, high ceilings, airy rooms and verandahs,  enormous flower and vegetable gardens and was run by thrifty Nuns with jangling keys at their waists, who, as well as Bad Girls who they shuffled down the Adoption Path, took in washing from local private hospitals.

The laundry was the hub of the Convent. It was huge, with enormous tables for folding, huge wicker laundry baskets on wheels, entire rooms for stacking folded linen,  big industrial washing machines, a drying room and an enormous mangle. Busy with silent rabbit like girls at work. The mangle was so wide it could iron a full length girl from side to side. Flat as a paua fritter. But that was the warm part of the laundry, you kind of worked up to that side as your pregnancy advanced.  The side where the laundry was received,  sorted and rinsed was where we began, it was cold,  right there where the trucks pulled in and out. Always cold. And sorting the linen in the sluice room was the worst of the jobs. Some of it should have been rinsed in the hospitals. We never hardened to it.

The rinsing girls on the cold side had cracks in their hands that never healed from the cold water, nails always waterlogged, ripped and bleeding, infected cuts that never gave up and to this day they go white and numb at the threat of chilly weather.  If it is terribly cold I am left using my hands like paddles. Our shoulders were always in pain.  Don’t feel bad though, due to my .. um.. high spirits I was often sent out to work with Sister Delphina in the gardens. Sometimes I was sent to the library, where  the girls did their correspondence school work in the evenings – to think about my sins! Well that WAS a hardship.  However I am wandering off the subject.

At of the outdoor end of laundry, near where the vans brought in their loads of bloody linen, leaking hideousness through the canvas bags which we rinsed and washed as well, was a small alcove.  This is where the girls who were living at the Convent came to wash their own clothes on Saturday afternoon.  Saturday afternoon and Sunday were our days off you see. The big laundry was silent.  The nuns at prayer.  And if you wanted your washing to be dry for ironing by Sunday afternoon you washed on Saturday.

In this alcove with its cold concrete floor, and  high iron crossed windows with jasmine creeping in from the nun’s garden, divided by a short bevilled glass wall from the laundry rinsing rooms were two big spotless concrete tubs and a long stone bench. Above one tub were two taps, one copper and one steel. One hot and one cold.  Hot. The joy of it. I still love to hold my hands in a tub of hot water.  Above the other tub was one cold tap.   Between them was a small mangle. We washed our clothes by hand.  It was Saturday. We were still in one piece, our babies bobbing gently in our bellies. And we chattered a mile a minute. As disconnected as any teenagers. Hauling our fat pregnant selves up onto the benches, dropping our slippers and swinging our bare feet, helping with each others washing, pushing them all through the mini mangle between the tubs,  trying to jam each others fingers between the rollers,(watch out for your hair, watch out !) babies having babies. Dragging our heavy baskets of wrung out dresses and nighties and  aprons across to the long empty clothes lines surrounded in heady lavender hedges, and we hid amongst the washing, giggling teenage giggles, hanging our scented colourful clothes out to dry with little wooden pegs, letting our faces drift into the wet soapy smells. The colour of them an afront to the white weekday sheets. Young and strong, steeped in a sadness we never discussed.  A sadness that demanded silliness. And one of my strongest scented memories of this period was the laundry soap.

The soap was soap.

Now let me tell you about the soap.

We will digress shortly for a moment. All the housework was done by the girls as well. Only our ‘side’ mind you. The Nuns cleaned their own. We had a long wing of our own, with many bedrooms. My job was to clean and polish the endless wide beautiful corridors, the visitors parlours and the dining hall,  all wide planked native wood and brass at the doors. One of my friends who I never saw again, this often being the way of these friendships forged in hardship, had the job of cleaning the two big bathrooms. Doling out clean towels and soap (carefully counted out by the nun with the keys)  as she went.  Each bathroom had 6 toilets, 6 hand basins and 3 showers. And in the hand-basins and showers there was home-made soap.  Made by a Sister no-one ever saw. And when the soap was a slither left abandoned in a soap saucer, my friend’s job was to collect all the slithers, rinse them, pop them into a big battered tin pot, fill the pot with water, boil it for a wee while, then take the pot with its old worn ladle, down the path and across to the Laundry and set it in the Girl’s Wash House ready for Saturday afternoon. This is what we washed our clothes with. Good soap. And our clothes smelt lovely. 

Of course I still cannot bear to throw away the last slithers of soap. And now that I am making my own soap, not only do we have the slithers but I also have the endy bits  and cuttings off the soap cakes.  And wasting it would be dreadful. sops-016

It all gets tossed into my soap pot and cooked up. I often add a few extra drops of lavender as a treat. If you want a formula, maybe a pound of soap to a gallon of water.  But it is an excellent laundry liquid, especially for woolens. Best in a jar with a lid, using the ladle to dole it out. It does not pour well!


And when it comes to dirty dogs after a day in the fields with the mud and melting snow, soap is a wonderful thing.

Both dogs are trained to stand in the shower and be hosed down, then toweled off before they can sit in front of the fire at night.  They do it. But with studied ill grace.


You all have a wonderful day.

Your friend on the farmy,


79 Comments on “Laundry Soap for Bad Girls

  1. i love the expression on your doggie’s face….

    [i, too, lived with the nuns (“ursuline”) in a convent, in ’69-’70….and i know all about the lye soap the nuns manufactured themselves, the soap that immediately turned my pretty green towels snow white in the first month i lived there….]

  2. Hi Celi,

    I love your blog and today’s brought tears to my eyes. It must have been such a difficult time for you yet your descriptions are beautiful. I recently saw a movie about that exact situation, only about girls in Ireland, and it was exactly what you describe in the washing rooms.

    I adore your pictures of Boo and Marmalade cat, always make me smile. The picture of the dog in the shower is so funny, you can see the humiliation. I guess it is worth it to sit in front of the fire.

    Have a great day,

  3. I went to an elementary school directly across the street from a Catholic school. We would pick on those girls about having to wear uniforms and eat fish on Friday while we had whatever we wanted to eat. But when the nuns came out we scattered! They scared us! Public school pregnant girls in the 70’s were sent to school somewhere but most of us never knew where. They were at school then gone then back again with a lot of gossiping about where they went. Morning miss c….t

  4. Yup, nuns here too. I was very lucky, though. No baby tummy, and a loving home. Our nuns were Franciscan missionaries, and rather relaxed, having seen the seamier side of life in Africa, India and the Far East. Things that would have made the domestic variety blanch, they took in their stride. I was fortunate to emerge without too many hangups, too much Catholic guilt or too much body-shame. And it was my mother who taught us to collect soap ends, grate them finely and make a soap liquid for all sorts of uses. Frugal skills that are becoming lost.

  5. I love beautiful cakes of handmade Lavender soap. At the moment I’ve got handmade lemongrass soap on the edge of my bathroom basin. it’s heavenly. Wish I had the facility to make it myself, but I buy it from a stall in the local market.

    When we children still lived in the family home, my Mother would grate all the soap slithers and ends into the washing machine to launder our clothes. I only vaguely remember the mangle to wring out the wet washing as a small child, but as I turn 60 in a couple of weeks, that sort of….. makes me feel very old to think of it. That and being born when television was introduced to Australia in 1956.

  6. So here I am, dreaming along in your memories, thinking, “How like Our Celi, to take the Best of what must have been a hard time in her life and share it with us…” scrolling down, smelling the jasmine….then Ton’s “No! PLEASE not the SOAP!” face pops up…
    Belly laugh.
    Have a great day, Hon. You got mine off to a good start!

  7. Just love reading stories from your past Celi! You can bring them to life as if we were there! Thank you! And I just love that precious Ton Ton! Please give him a hug from me!

  8. well I’ll be jiggered! I am not sure what idea I had about your early life but it certainly wasn’t that…It sounds as though it was not easy but then it seemed to be comfortable and clean.

    I have always shredded my bits of old soap or else stuck them on to the new bar, never wated the odd bits.
    have a lovely day yourself Celi , lots of love

  9. Wow, Celi, I felt like I was right there with you in the convent the entire time. What a wonderfully written story of a time in your life that you remember so vividly. I am sure the sounds and smells of that time linger on years later—they tend to do that. Thanks for a lovely start to the day today, as always.

  10. Whilst I wasn’t in any kind of insinuation close to yours, I do remember the ‘soap’! Mondays was always laundry day in our house growing up. As my grandparents also lived with us, whilst my Mum and Dad worked, my nan did the daily chores around the house. My other vivid memory is the heavy ‘bucket’ on the stove boiling the whites! All the windows in the house wide open, even in the winter, to get the steam out!
    Raining here again, and when I went to tend to the chickens I slipped and slid all the way. Then an old song hit my brain and I sang out loud: “Mud, mud, glorious Mud. There’s nothing quite like it for cooling the blood. So come with me follow, down to the hollow, and there we will wallow in glorious MUD”! Now I can’t get the stupid song out of my head!!
    Hugs, Lyn

  11. It must have been a very difficult time for you. I had my son when I was young and also had a difficult time in a different way. I has made us strong, I think.

  12. Celi you broke my heart this morning. When I was younger I had a townhouse that was part of an old convent. The numbers were down and the convent was sold. My townhouse was the laundry converted into a lovely home. One night I had a dream that a young girl was trying to escape through the big heavy wood front door. I watched from the top of the stairs. It was so real. I will never forget it. A young man was on the other side calling to her and there was such a ruckus. The nuns were holding her back and wouldn’t let her go. I woke up so very upset. Ghosts? Yes…I believe in ghosts.
    The windows were beautiful and opened out! There were many wonderful cabinets along the walls that held the laundry in my large bedroom upstairs. It was upstairs and down. The exterior walls were made of stone. There was lots of beautiful wood! I could visualize (after the dream) that poor young girl calling to her lover locked up on the second floor. Like a princess in a tower. Let down your golden hair.
    I lived in a hearing impaired community and the school’s classrooms of the convent were converted to small apartments for my neighbors. My signing is very weak now. I haven’t used it in many years. But I remember these amazing young people and had them for dinner many a night!
    I used to do behavior modification with dual diagnoses children and young adults. Now I farm! 🙂
    My step-dad’s sister was put in a convent when she was a very young girl. His brother was slated for the priesthood. He refused and joined the Navy. But poor Auntie….she had no choice but to go and she became a teacher. She left in her 40s. She met a wonderful man and she lives a happy life finally. She spoke of the harshness of life and lack of personal possessions. My Mom bought her a guitar and a lovely handbag which she couldn’t keep. So very sad. I am glad she is happy now. She missed out on such a big part of her life . In the old French catholic families it was an honor and obligation to have one family member serve the church. Because Uncle refused…Auntie was elected. I should say forced. There was no choice. She was the youngest. She couldn’t even keep her name. It was changed to Sister Clair.
    I am so sorry you had to endure such hardship. This is who you are today and ultimately why your are who you are today. I think you are so very beautiful. Inside and out! There was something that drew me to you. Now I know. So much to know, admire, and love!
    Thank you for sharing a difficult time in your life. I sensed a story. I was right.
    We all have a story. Love you!
    Always, Mere xxxxxoooooo

  13. This post has left me feeling so many different things.

    I’m an adoptive mom and I think of my girl’s first mothers often. They sacrificed so much to provide their girls with a life they couldn’t give them. I am the grateful recipient of their sacrifices and I have great respect and admiration for them. But I am also so very well aware that adoption always begins with loss. A mother’s loss of her child. A child’s loss of his/her mother. In the case of my girls, a loss of their birth countries and their cultures.

    To hear what you experienced in your young life fill my heart with sadness. You also have my respect and admiration for sacrificing so much. I know it couldn’t have been easy.

    I am also feeling a great deal of guilt. I have never made my own soap nor have I been one to save all those slivers of soap over the years. What a waste!!!

    At least I make my own laundry, although I should be making it with homemade slivers of soap. One day that will happen.

  14. Your life really is the most interesting story, and I marvel at how your experiences have shaped you and brought you to this farmy life now. And, I love the soap recycle idea. The experession on Ton’s face looks as though he’s just been consigned to the shower home for wayward dogs. Clearly not his favorite part of the day!

  15. Beautiful story, Celi. I remember high school girls going “to live with their aunties in other cities” for a while when we all knew they were just 10 miles away at the Florence Crittenton Home for Wayward Girls! It helps to know that you were able to stay in touch with your son and that he is part of your family today. Hugs, Mary

  16. Yes, Nuns the whole world over 🙂 My Mom also always saved the ends and boiled them up for hand washing in the laundry. I went to a convent boarding school, order of Notre Dame (in SA) and the soap pot appeared every Friday night. As part of our school requirements we had to take 3 bars of white Castille soap only – coloured scented soaps were bound to lead us down the road of sin to who-knows-where 🙂 I buy homemade soap from farmers market now, and just stick the last bit onto the new bar. Laura

  17. You have a way of finding the beauty, of celebrating and commemorating the joy but there is all that you do not say and I am filled with sadness and heartache for you. I hope that I have just a little of your strength and determination. 🙂

  18. Cecelia, I used to do this with soap when I was a young single mum and currently have a jar I am once again collecting soap slivers in 🙂
    I really feel for you, this must’ve been a terribly hard time for you. We saw a documentary a few years ago on exactly this, they interviewed quite a few women and it was clearly a traumatic time in their lives. I was lucky to have a little support from my parents (although at first I was to be sent away till my baby was adopted out) I refused to do both and in the end they resigned themselves to how I felt things should be but I did have to move out of home. You said something I said once, babies having babies.

  19. I once overheard someone say, “It’s the good girls who get into trouble, the bad ones know what to use.”
    Today, I learned what a mangle is.
    That which does not kill us makes us stronger–Nietzsche. Now we know in part how your strength and determination were forged into your character. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  20. For a moment there, time and space were transcended by words and I was there in the warmth, and chill, with you… Then brought forward decades fast by Ton’s inimitably expressive eyes 🙂

  21. Oh gulp – didn’t see that one coming. So many emotions, I am sure it was a tough, hard and emotionally difficult time despite you putting a happy spin on it for us. Although I am sure there were a few moments of sunshine there too (at least, I hope so). Thanks for sharing, sending you a big hug x

  22. It seems positively Dickensian! The conditions in that rinsing room were as stupid and unnecessary as they were inhumane. The simplest of implements would have saved the hands from such abuse.

  23. My aunt used to have a small home laundry in her basement when I was a child. It always smelled of Clorox bleach. There was a large mangle like you describe and I was allowed to do the handkerchiefs on it (with my cousin’s supervision). The thing was at least as long as a bed sheet because that is what they used to iron on it. Acres of sheets blowing and drying in the sun on miles of clotheslines. Haven’t thought about that in years. What a hard time for you, Celi. What prompted you to tell it now? You have shown us another window into your life. My mother used to save slivers of soap and put them in a little sieve-like thingie and swish it around in the dishpan to make bubbles for dishes, Poor Ton….. What an expression!

  24. Sending you LOVE and Hugs today your story could have been mine but after telling the father I told no one 🙂
    I love that you are making soap and enjoying some of the nicer memories that are coming back and keeping you whole.

  25. Your life sounds likes a novel. Thank you sharing your colourful past with us. I would like to know where in NZ the convent was? I love the idea of saving up every last morsel. Waste not.

  26. Each time you share something of your life with us, the feeling resonates with so much of our own memories and experiences. There is much imagery and pleasantness in this post… I felt I was there. And, if I had been, maybe neither one of us would have been so sad. I love you Celi.

    • You would have had us all tip toeing through the pines looking for rabbits and holes in the fences.. so you would have.. c

  27. Your story broke my heart Celi… I knew about that place, and always thought the laundry was an abomination. the girl I knew had to wake everyone up at five, and since they didn’t give her an alarum clock she kept waking all night to make sure she didn’t oversleep..
    Nuns and their habits indeed….XXX

    • I have always been an early riser, Though our nuns did not glide on skates in the middle of the night, there were some wonderful women in those habits, they taught us that women could be independent and were fierce about education. Some were very old school. Mostly I wished the nurses at the hospital had used their sluice room more often, c

  28. I smiled with a small tear flowing down my cheek! Knew most of the beautifully told story from previous posts . . . knew more. I did my obstetrics training at Crown St Women’s in Sydney. Most of the ‘bad’ girls ended up there. We had to ‘sign off’ on 22 individual births for the duration and be present at 200+. I ended up birthing about 200 myself [did not sleep really for the month 🙂 !] . . . most of them ‘bad’ girls who were the ‘good’ girls who had been caught!! We had to put a cushion over their faces at the moment of the birth and could not tell them the sex of their babe. I had been brought up to do the ‘correct’ thing ~ oh no, I could not . . . the girls did want to know – I did tell them and they were much more in peace: I sat with them for hours of my own ‘free’ time . . . phoned them and encouraged them later . . . I was actually still a virgin myself , but I so understood how they muct have felt . . . that for a crazy moment of carelessness it could have been me . . . you remember the birth of your first son, I remember a glorious time of doing the wrong thing which was so right!!!

    • Ah, poor girls, we were told and in fact our sisters came and took the babies and us back to the convent, where they had a nursery, it was not so cruel, much of it was, some even intentionally, but mostly they were kind.. c

      • Celi ~ I am talking of a generation a decade before you . . . and the almost purposeful ‘uppityness’ of mostly unmarried and lemon-sour head sisfters!! I had just become engaged ~ my beloved would sneak in at night and I would sneak him the one floor downstairs to see the babies not yet taken away!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 We got caught by the delightful night sister more than once ~ she would just look, hand both of us the proper sterilized garments, pass over half-a-dozen warm baby bottles and say ‘Since you are here, feed ’em or I’ll tell’!!!!!! It was a giggly time . . . courting over babbies who always were as good as gold 🙂 !!!!!

  29. Celi, I’ve just re=read your story aloud to my husband…As I read it I realised again, what a brilliant writer you are. a magnificent piece of writing, as well as an amazing story…XXX
    Congratulations… you turned a terrible experience in to an important story that needed to be told…

    • I will write this one as a book one day, in fact i have begun it many times. The months i lived there are etched into my memory quite visually for some reason. Thank you for the encouragement, Valerie. c

  30. Scent awakens so many memories. Your words put a beautiful image in my mind although it was a difficult time for you. Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your past.

    • of course emily, do you use lard? I have been experimenting with cleaning the lard to whiten it and i wonder if there is a simpler way. Plus i really need to learn about milk soap. i will be milking again in two months.. look forward to your email.. c

  31. That had to be a hard time in your life for you… yet you grew and learned from your experience. That is wonderful. Thank you so very much for sharing it with us.

  32. Love it. Why is it that collies can dive and swim endlessly in muddy swamps and ditches, and leap with abandon at a garden hose sprayed in the air; but when it’s time to embrace the structured spray of a clean bath, wither in miserableness? 🙂

  33. Your writing is beautiful, C. Your life has been full and not boring. A lot to be said for that. You could write a wonderful memoir, I bet. Feeling honored you share this story with us.

  34. Like I said, I am rather new to your blog Celi and I love it. Yours is the first I open when I see it. When I began reading this spectacular post I thought you were practicing writing a novel – one of those blog “prompt” things. I soon realized the story is yours and it was making me cry for the little girl in you. You are a truly brave soul and it is a great pleasure to know you, your life, your farmy and all the people and critters there who matter.

    • That is such a kind thing to say, but none of us escape life unscathed and many of the things we endure become part of the strength we need for our lives.. c

  35. Thank you for sharing your story, hard as it was to read, harder still for you to live through. In the sharing, you awaken others to the conditions in the laundries and the plight of so many young girls – and give a sliver of hope and sense of moving on, Celi, much like those slivers of soap.

    I always save slivers of soap, remembering my grandmother making soap so many years ago.

  36. Wow. What a very well written and touching story. I am compelled to comment on this one. And though I know it helped form your character, it’s a piteous commentary on societies who punish the beautiful consequence of loving another person, whether misguided or not. Blessings, C, to your sweet frozen busy little hands. xoxo

  37. Your voice never fails to move me, dear C, and the full, adventurous, challenging, hard-knock, sweet and joyful life you’ve led never ceases to amaze me. You are gifted, and you are a great gift.
    Love to you.

  38. For all their so-called holiness, those nuns – like many I’ve encountered – are no loving Christians. More like cruel slave masters.

    Pure soap is fine so long as the water is reasonably soft, but you try rinsing it out with London hard water! When washing our hair, Mum used to put some vinegar in the final rinse.

    Hangdog perfectly describes Tonton in the shower!

  39. You are a delightful story teller. And what a story it is …. I too have a story similar … I surrendered a baby for adoption 41 years ago. I have found my birth son and our reunion has been good, feeling a need in both of us. I found him 14 years ago! That is so hard to believe, it feels almost like yesterday, the emotions, the questions, the answers. What a gift it was to find him. I wonder, did you ever find your ‘baby’? I haven’t read all your blog stories so I don’t know if that story is there. I tried to find it … read a couple of other really good stories in the process but alas I got no answers. If I am prying, I understand. You have such a positive attitude about life Celi. You have touched my heart with your words and pictures yet again. Thank you.

    • Oh faye, thank goodness you were able to get back in touch with your son. I also found my eldest boy – when he was a teenager – and he and his brothers are as thick as thieves. I always said he fell back into the family like a brick in a well and the family that raised him are still whole and hearty and involved right to the hilt, in fact I went to his wedding in canada last winter.. it was scary.. with all his other family there but ended up to be just lovely.. c

  40. This sounds like such a tale by Charles Dickens. To have been treated so not so long ago! Love this line ” A sadness that demanded silliness.” The human spirit is hard to crush. It doesn’t surprise me you were sent to the garden.
    We washed clothes by hand at the farm when I was little – and sun dried them. All those little slivers of soap were not thrown away but thrifty blended together and use. Perfectly good soap. It’s still hard to discard them…and i’ve a little pile waiting.
    Molly looks just like that in our shower – Miss Muddy Paws has to become civilized before nightfall!

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