American Camp Laundress Quarters

Photograph of a white building made of wood
The American Camp Laundresses were responsible for keeping soldiers tidy

Kim Karu

Quick Facts
Friday Harbor, WA
When you do your laundry, do you ever think about the washing machine does to get them clean? At the push of a button, the machine automatically mixes soap and water, presses clothes to get out grime, and spins them to get out excess water. In about an hour, several days’ worth of clothing will be clean and you will have done, at most, 30 seconds worth of work to make this happen.

Before the advent of electricity, cleaning clothes required extreme effort both in time and energy. Prior to washing, clothes would be soaked overnight. The next day, clothes would be soaped up, heated in boiling water, rinsed, wrung, dried, starched and ironed. Many of these steps would have to be repeated to make the laundry clean and presentable. Laundresses would have to haul all of the heavy water buckets necessary to perform this work to the place where their laundry machines were located. The laundress would also likely be required to make her own soap from lye or animal fat. For US soldiers based at American Camp, the hard work of the laundresses was essential to keeping their uniforms clean and presentable. 

This building once housed as many as three post laundress families. Laundresses were officially considered military staff, like soldiers, were subject to the Articles of War. The tradition of employing military laundresses was a British tradition continued by the US military. Laundresses were officially regulated by congress in an 1802 law which specified that they were entitled to rations, straw bedding, and access to medical care at the camp hospital. In many ways, these women were treated like the overwhelmingly male members of the military.

Laundresses normally earned a dollar per month for washing clothes for each soldier. At American Camp laundresses did wash for about 20 soldiers; that means that the laundress earned more money than most of the enlisted soldiers at American Camp. A laundress had to be married to one of the soldiers stationed at a military facility. If she lost her husband, she was given 60 days to find another or would be escorted off the post. While some laundresses ran through several husbands, more typically they were married to sergeants and maintained stable households. One laundress, Catherine McGarey, eventually staked a claim and settled on the island after the border conflict ended. She and her family are interred in the island’s Catholic cemetery on Madden Lane.

This building is one of two laundress’ quarters originally located at American Camp. After American Camp was dissolved as a military base it was moved to Friday Harbor where it was something of a tourist attraction. Since its relocation to its current site it serves as a reminder of the hard work that women did at frontier military bases and of the complex society that existed in these places.

San Juan Island National Historical Park

Last updated: February 25, 2022