Taking Care of Some Historical Laundry

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

One of the biggest challenges at the mansion is piecing together the layout of rooms that were only used by the servants. The Barkers, the architect who designed the home, and the Barkers’ insurance company took many photos of the mansion right when the family was living in the new addition. In fact, several of the contractors who designed the home sent photographers over to take photographs to be used in advertising. I am currently tracking down some of these advertisements. These were all photos of the nicest rooms in the mansion, the parts of the home that the Barkers used themselves and spent the most money on decorating. But, the Barker family was just three out of the 11-13 people who lived in the mansion (8-10 servants), and no photos were taken of the rooms the servants occupied for both work and sleep. These un-photographed spaces account for roughly half of the mansion’s 35,000 square feet.

This week I challenged myself to try to piece together the original layout of one of those rooms. On Wednesday, I gave a behind-the-scenes tour, and I wanted to be able to tell my group more about the laundry room, which is the final stop on tour. Using the 1905 contracts, blueprints, and specifications, I was able to get a somewhat clear picture of how Barker’s laundry room was laid out in 1905. Get ready for some serious historical logic and primary source bonanza!


The laundry today


I started by first looking around the room itself, seeing what remains in the laundry today. When you first walk into the laundry room, a weird smell hits you. According to my former boss, the administration which preceded her kept a group of feral cats in the laundry room during the winter. The room today has a modern washer and dryer for washing tablecloths for events, several cabinets, an old metal table, and a row of three sinks on the north wall. There are also three drawers in the north wall; these were used to collect ash from the stoves in the kitchen above. The laundry room was added during the 1905 addition and was below the kitchen.


Laundry Room
1905 blueprint for the laundry


I found some discrepancies between the original specifications and the current laundry. First and foremost, the blueprint called for two doors into the laundry but only one door is there today. The original blueprint also included a row of four sinks, attached at the southeast wall. The design specifications only called for three tubs though, “Wolff’s F 5392 Columbia” tubs. The tubs had “roll rim wash trays with integral backs,” Columbian legs, brass soap cups, wringer attachments, and other features. They were made by the L. Wolff Manufacturing Company which had a factory in Chicago along with showrooms in the Loop. There are three washtubs with sink attachments in the laundry room today, but they are not on the north wall. I crawled around on the dusty cobweb-covered floor looking for a maker’s mark or serial number but had little luck, so I turned to the world of digital primary sources.


After a bit of digging, I was able to find some of the Wolff Mfg. Co.’s catalogs. The HathiTrust digital library had Wolff’s 1904 catalog series F, and sure enough, F-5392 was there. The image in the catalog was a close match to what is in the basement today with a few pieces absent. The backs in the current tubs are a little lower than the picture 5393 model but as you can see below there are options for different heights. I found another model in the catalog that looks more like the current tubs, it is possible that the Barkers changed their mind or maybe Wolff Mfg. Co. was out of model F-5392 at the time, I included the other model below.


Wolff Mfg. Co 1904 Catalogue F, p.803; https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011205103




Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 4.54.54 PM.png
Wolff Mfg. Co 1904 Catalogue, p.798; https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011205103


The main missing piece was the wringer; the mechanical part on the top was gone while the wooden base was still there. The base actually had to be ordered separately, I included its page in the catalog below. Now I can confidently say that these fixtures are original to the mansion (the faucets still work too). This level of verification does not happen very often in my urban archaeology adventures, and I do not think anyone could be more ecstatic than me over a 1904 plumbing catalog. I was also able to find most of the mansion’s other fixtures in these catalogs which I will share in a future post.


One of the more exciting features of the laundry room was brought to my attention by my former boss, Jessica Rosier. In December 2018 Jessica visited the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth Minnesota, and something there reminded her of my blueprint for the Barker Mansion laundry room.

Glensheen Mansion had a large mechanical dryer in their laundry room. The clothes were hung on racks that pulled out from the machine, and they were dried by heated coils on the sides of the machine powered by either gas or coal. Jessica sent me a photo of the dryer and told me that she remembered there being a dryer labeled on the 1905 blueprint for the drawing-room.


Glensheen mansion dryer
The dryer at Glensheen Mansion; photograph courtesy of Jessica Rosier


Jessica sent me this photo on December 23, and her question about the dryer in my blueprint turned out to be one of the best Christmas presents I received that year. Her question first led me to find the dryer listed on the original blueprint. It was in the southwest corner of the room, and it had six drying racks attached. The architect drew the extent of the racks when pulled out from the dryer. An exhaust vent was nearby in the wall above the three ash collection drawers in the wall. Likely, the vent was connected to the dryer, and it still has the original ornate grill on it. It should be noted that the Butler’s pantry also had a dryer; the dryer there was for drying dish towels and it was simply a cabinet connected to a vent.



I spent some time trying to track down exactly what type of dryer the Barkers had. I searched through old catalogs and architectural magazines on Google Books and HathiTrust Digital Library for a “six rack stove dryer” or “six rack cabinet dryer” as both names were used for this type of machine. I found several advertisements from between 1905 and 1910 for coal and gas-powered dryers from The Chicago Dryer Company. The Barkers’ dryer was likely purchased from this company as most of the interior plumbing, electrical, and gas fixtures were purchased from Chicago companies and almost all of the contractors who worked on the home were from Chicago.

The Chicago Dryer Company built several six-rack-models that were either gas or coal-powered. Two gas outlets were installed in the laundry room in 1905 along with electric light fixtures. Thus one of these outlets may have been for the dryer rather than for gaslighting. I am going to keep digging through my files, and maybe I will find a record of exactly which one they purchased.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 12.08.00 PM

Apart from the mechanical dryer, the laundry room was specially designed for drying clothes outside as well. The laundry room has two large windows that allowed servants to attach clothes to the lines outside directly. The specifications called for those windows to only have screens on half the window so that the servants could access the clotheslines. The courtyard outside the window was for drying clothes. There also was a catch basin or drain in the middle of the courtyard which collected wastewater from the boiler, refrigerator, and washtubs. The catch basin would have had a metal grate on it but has been removed at some point in the past one hundred years and filled in.


Low windows for hanging clothes in the courtyard


The laundry room also has an original cabinet in the corner and an original cabinet in the middle. The middle cabinet matches the drawings Perkins did for the sewing room cabinets and other cabinets in the servants’ rooms. Perkins did over 130 large drawings of the interior on full-size linen drawing paper. I only have copies of about twenty of these drawings, so the laundry room drawings are among the missing pages. I am not sure if the long cabinet on the east wall is original, it is full of paint cans right now. There was also the refrigerator waste chute I mentioned in my post on July 13. The last detail I have documented is the intercom; the laundry room had one of the six intercoms installed in the mansion during the 1905 addition.

Now the only question that remains in piecing together this room is how the servants did the washing. They used the Wolff tubs to do hand washing, but I do not have a record of a mechanical washing machine in this room. At the time there were mechanical washing machines available. Given how the Barkers spared no expense ordering the most modern of appliances and fixtures for the entire house, I can surmise that there was some sort of mechanical washer in this room originally. There was also likely a large wringer on the floor, similar to the one in the picture from Glensheen Mansion. It is possible that the washer could have been in the room across the hall from the laundry room which was called the cleaning room. The cleaning room had a large sink in the room but did not have any other fixtures listed in my documentation.

So there we go, the laundry has been pieced back together to the best of my ability. I am sure more details may emerge in the future, such as the model of dryer and washer the Barkers had. I also hope to learn more about the servants who worked in here; we have the names of the maids but almost no more information on them. This week I added some interpretive signage and the advertisements and images of the original fixtures for future behind-the-scenes tours to use. Now all I need to do is piece together the other twenty-odd rooms that we don’t have photographed.

TJ Kalin 7.19.19



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