Shirts, collars and spending: what’s a laundry list?

This morning I heard a politician talking about a “laundry list of spending.” It’s a funny term, laundry list. I make to-do lists and grocery lists, but I never make one for doing the laundry.

The list can be traced back to Jane Austen’s writing in the early 1800s, although, in Northanger Abbey, she refers to it as a “washer bill.” Oxford English Dictionaries defines "laundry list" as follows:

· A long or exhaustive list of people or things, as in “a laundry list of people and organizations that would have to be won over.”

It got me wondering what’s the origin of this idiom? And, as with most sayings and idioms, it originates in a time before household appliances such as washers and dryers were available to the masses.

My mom used to swear by wringer washers – these were big tubs that you filled with water, and to wring the clothes out after rinsing, you put them through two mechanized rollers attached to the machine. These squeezed out excess water. I remember that washing day lasted all day, sometimes two days. It was labour-intensive and involved filling the tub with clean water for rinsing, sometimes two or three times (on a farm, clothes got really dirty, really fast!).

If using a wringer-washer was time-intensive, I can imagine what it would have been like to pump the water from the well, heat it up over a fire – we’re talking Victorian era and earlier here – and then hand scrub the clothes, rinse and repeat.

So that’s where the list comes in. You sent your clothes out to a laundry, then, and to keep track of what you sent, you checked the items off a list: soft-collar shirts – 3; button shirts – 5; long-sleeved blouse – 2, and so on. And then when you picked up your laundry, you matched the belongings with the list.

About 10 years ago, Ed Quillen wrote about his days in his family’s laundry. He remembers laundry lists well.

Well, there you have it. When you want a lot, it’s called a laundry list. When you have a lot of tasks, it’s a to-do list. And when you want to eat, you need a grocery list.

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