As I walk about Edinburgh, I often find myself thinking about residents and visitors of the past, moving about the city. A while ago, such thoughts gave rise to the Jane Gaugain walk I wrote for Twist Collective. These days, pottering about my locale, I find that my path often crosses with those taken by the Newhaven fishwives, on their way to town to sell their wares; in Leith, I think about Betty Mouat, and, at the East end of Princes Street, Anna Laetitia Barbauld always springs to mind. Today I managed a good long walk and found myself thinking about the distances women must have have traveled on foot, pushing prams, trolleys, and make-shift carts, to get their washing to and from the steamie.
The cleaning and drying of clothes was a massive problem for those living in nineteenth-century Scottish tenements, many of which did not have a clean running water supply or access to a drying green. By the late 1800s, Edinburgh and Glasgow followed the example of London and Liverpool, and introduced public wash-houses, known North of the Border as steamies. Often attached to swimming baths, and publicly managed by the council, steamies were used by women all over Scotland’s cities.
Several of my neighbours have told me about how they used to frequent the Bonnington Road steamie.
There was a steamie in Stockbridge (attached to what is now Glenogle Swimming Pool), another in Portobello, and according to this 1960s timetable, seven further Edinburgh steamies – making a total of ten city-wide.
During the 60s and 70s, the rise of the domestic washing machine and the advent of the commercial laundrette spelt the end of the communal, publicly-run, steamie.
But, in new automated form, the council-managed steamies seem to have lingered on in Edinburgh until the early 80s.
Though I’m sure most of us relish the convenience of the domestic washing machine, communal steamies played an important role in the lives of many women in Edinburgh and Glasgow (for example, see the comments of these women, recorded in 1971, about the closure of a steamie in Edinburgh – does anyone know which one it is?). Following their demise, steamies quickly became the focus of an affectionate nostalgia that’s best exemplified by Tony Roper’s immensely popular play The Steamie (the 1988 TV production is available in full here on the STV player).
Did any of you use one of the steamies in Edinburgh or Glasgow? Did equivalent public laundry / wash-house facilities exist in US cities?