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Brent Ranalli

by Brent Ranalli

Abstract: The “laundry sneer”—finding fault with Thoreau for not doing his own washing—is a relatively recent phenomenon. This article seeks to trace the history of the laundry sneer and to explain why it is misguided. Further, we inquire whether Thoreau might have actually tried to do his own washing on the banks of Walden Pond—some textual evidence suggests that he did—and we reconstruct what it might have been like, and why he would have given it up. Laundry was “the American housekeeper’s hardest problem” in Thoreau’s day, and it remained so throughout the nineteenth century, despite the best efforts of technologists, entrepreneurs, and social reformers, as well as philosophers. Thoreau probably regretted not figuring out a way to manage clothes-washing for himself. But if spoiled twenty-first century critics want to fault him for it: Let he whose own clothes are washed by hand cast the first stone.

Keywords: Henry David Thoreau, laundry/washing, vocation, self-sufficiency, gendered labor


In wildness is the preservation of the world.”


Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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