Help me figure out what this old-timey phrase means?
February 20, 2014 2:46 PM   Subscribe

My buddy posted a link to this awesome digital collection of acquaintance cards from the 1870s on Facebook recently and we've been trying to figure out what the phrase "when are you going to pay the old lady for your last week's washing," which is printed on a couple of the cards, is referring to.

An exact search for the phrase on Google leads to the Flickr account where the cards originated and the author doesn't know what it means either. I've tried a more general search and thus far have only come up with stuff about wages for labor in the 1870s and unrelated idioms. Any ideas?
posted by pizzaslut to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I believe it means "I have reason to call on you (or your household) because I have to pay for the washing." It's somewhere in the vein of "come up and see my etchings" and the other cards on the list like, "come up and see our new lamp." All reasons just to get the two people together so someone can make a romantic move on someone else. I'm imagining a boardinghouse situation, where the landlady takes in laundry, and all the tenants are women, and the young men have the landlady do their laundry so they have reason to visit the house and chat with the ladies.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:54 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

It made me think of a boardinghouse too, so I agree with Mo. Picking up/paying for the laundry was an excuse to visit.
posted by tacodave at 3:26 PM on February 20, 2014

A joke from 1881:
—The U.C. told him to get off, but the lad wouldn't. So U.C. asked the boy "Why he didn't pay the fare," and received for reply that he couldn't. "How's that," said the U.C. "Because, sir, you haven't paid my mother for your last week's washing."

—U.C. collapsed.
posted by Knappster at 3:43 PM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Laundry workers would sometimes collect laundry directly from people, and drop off the clean laundry, at which time you were supposed to pay for "last week's washing". The traditional laundry day, whether done at home or by a delivery service, was Monday*. I'm guessing that the joke somehow refers to the recipient spending all their money at the weekend, and not having enough to pay for last week's washing when Monday comes. Perhaps it was a jokey response card given by a woman to a man?

Here's one quote from The American Outlook ...: A Periodical of Progress Devoted to the Interests of Laundry Owners and Dry Cleaners, Volume 8, 1920:

"the average housewife is not going to condemn the laundry for taking a reasonable length of time for handling her her work, nor in these modern days is she going to demand that the work be called for on any specific day of the week. In the modern housewife's routine, since the disappearance of the modern washerwoman, Monday no longer takes on such terrible significance as it did in the past, and the laundryowner* can, without much comment, call for the washing on any day of the week, provided he calls for it on that particular day and returns it at a specified given time."

*proprietor of a laundry service.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:13 PM on February 20, 2014

(First, you know that this exact question was pondered on the blue within the past week, right?)

There was an exact match of the card for sale on ebay here, perhaps the exact same card as in the picture? The seller identifies the card as coming from the 1890s, from the collection of a much sought after young lady.

Like oneirodynia, I wonder if these were supposed to be given by the woman to the man? Perhaps as an oblique way of saying "we did something last week, wanna do it again?". The second card, especially, with its floral border, is a lot more feminine than the other cards. And no place for a name to go, so the two would already be acquainted, and a Victorian lady might have preferted the discretion of a card with no name on it, hoping that the gentleman recipient would have no uncertainty about the identity of the sender.

I wonder what the images are doing at the top of the first card? Are they a rebus? "Dear alligator"?
posted by Tsuga at 9:08 PM on February 20, 2014

Perhaps as an oblique way of saying "we did something last week, wanna do it again?"

This is the impression I get from the examples I've found. The giver wants to turn a one-time fling into a weekly, perhaps endless obligation. If we take "washing" as a euphemism for, say, kissing, the man's repayment this week for last week's installment will inevitably create a new obligation for him, to be paid next week.
posted by Knappster at 9:46 PM on February 20, 2014

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