Lovely Lavoirs

Lavoir at Vailhourles

Last weekend we took advantage of the continuing mild weather to do a walk we hadn’t done before around Vailhourles, in Aveyron. We parked in the centre of the village near the lavoir – washing place or wash-house. These structures are so much a part of the landscape around here that you tend to forget the importance they held in the past. My researching appetite whetted, I found out more about them.

In the process I even found a website, Les Lavoirs de France, devoted to collecting and publishing pictures of lavoirs throughout France.

If you look at a French large-scale IGN map, you often see the word lav. marked in blue. I was surprised to see so many of them but that is presumably because the countryside was more densely populated a century or so ago. They were normally built at the site of a spring or a stream, quite often in isolated places. This explains why they are outside and usually below a village, since many villages are sited on a hill.

According to the website, until the 18th century women took their washing to the nearest stream, river or pond. There, they beat the linen on a stone or wooden plank. The construction of more permanent structures dates from the late 18th century. There was even a law passed in 1851 financing the construction of lavoirs for reasons of hygiene. However, up on the causse in this area, which is notable for the absence of streams, I wouldn’t be surprised if specially constructed lavoirs dated from before then.

The lavoir, along with the fountain, became one of the main social meeting-places of the village. Women gossiped and sang, relieving the tedium of this strenuous task. It crops up regularly in French literature, especially in French country novels. However, there is a wonderful scene in Zola’s L’Assommoir, set in Paris, where two lavandières – washer-women – have a no-holds-barred fight in the wash-house.

Lavoirs fell into disuse with the advent of mains water and washing machines. In country areas, though, they were still in use up till the 1960s. Mains water was not installed at our house until 1963. The nearest lavoir is more than a kilometre away, down a steep hill. This was where they also collected water before they sunk the wells.

One of the regular summer walks that the village of Espinas lays on is to a hamlet called Flouquet. A woman who lived there in her youth and is probably now in her sixties tells us how she helped her grandmother to do the washing in the lavoir. She also explains how they made washing powder from ash, being careful not to use chestnut wood-ash because its high tannin content could stain the linen. Then they had to wheel the wet linen back uphill in a wheelbarrow and lay it to dry on the bushes.  

Lavoir at Bach

Apparently there are four main types of lavoir.

  • By a river or pond, sometimes with a washing plank that could be raised or lowered according to the level of the water – see the one at Bach above, although that has fixed washing stones.
  • Covered with a roof supported by pillars with the washing pool inside – like the one at Vailhourles at the beginning of this post. 
  • With the washing pool supplied by rainwater, the roof being specially angled to the interior. I think the one at Caylus below, with the unfortunate rusty roof, might fall into this category, but I have to check.
  • In tunnel-form, built into a hill or bank. I’ve never seen one like that around here.

    Lavoir at Caylus

 

I once mentioned to an elderly woman that the washing machine must have been a liberating innovation for women. She agreed but said that it had ended the social aspect of the communal lavoir. She also said, “Even more than the washing machine, the thing that really gave country women more freedom was the car.” 

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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8 Responses to Lovely Lavoirs

  1. Anthony says:

    It would be interesting to find out how they made washing powder with oak-ashes. Living alone, I eschew beastly washing-machines (and television) and do all my washing by hand: it is a pleasure when there are only one or two of you. Drying clothes is so easy in southern France.

    PS Have you been to the marvellous 12th century church at Lunac (Aveyron) with a fine and massive stone-row (alignement) by the roadside nearby ?

    https://beyondthepale.pixieset.com/eglisedelunac/

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It does seem counter-intuitive to use wood ash as washing power, but I’ve been doing some research on soap-making recently for a novel and wood ash is basically lye, one of the main ingredients of soap. If you really want to make your own, there are various recipes on the internet! Can’t do without a washing machine myself.

      Thanks for the Lunac link. In our 20 years here I haven’t been there but must do so and follow up your tip.

      Like

  2. Steph says:

    I too am intrigued by lavoirs. I have to say that the ones you photographed are rather more impressive than ours here in Creuse! Thanks for pointing me in the direction of the lavoir website. I shall upload some photos there today since I’ve got quite a few of our local lavoirs.
    And although I enjoy reading about lavoirs and their history, I am eternally grateful for the invention of the washing machine!

    Like

  3. You’d have thought the pillar would have rotted away by now.
    I don’t know if Vero’s mural is still intact – it was a marouflage, (painted on canvas and stuck onto the wall, if you haven’t come across that expression) so it may have peeled off. However, she could have renewed it. I’ll have a look next time I’m up in the area and take a pic if she has.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I hope her mural is still there. I hadn’t come across marouflage before, but then I am the least artistic person on the planet. Will definitely take a look if we get over there.

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  4. Thank you for this glimpse into the past. It reminds me of our unplanned visit to Montrol-Sénard in the Limousin, a village where the local inhabitants have restored and equipped all the old buildings, the school, workshops, the forge, barns etc. It’s fascinating and well worth a visit if you’re ever up in that direction. Here’s the link to their lavoir pic http://www.panoramio.com/photo/34874897. I also remember the lavoir just outside Roquecor in Tarn et Garonne where a friend, artist Veronique Dolcini, created a mural of Roman ladies doing their washing. It was beautiful. We don’t appear to have a lavoir here in Vieuzos, but perhaps that’s because we’ve never looked for it. We will ask around.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you for the link to the Montrol-Sénard lavoir. It is a lovely one and rather unusual, I think, in that one of the pillars supporting the roof is actually in the washing pool. We’re in T&G but Roquecor is over the other side of the département. However, if we ever find ourselves in that direction I will take a look at your friend’s work. The website I mentioned that is devoted to lavoirs is always looking for new ones to feature. In fact, I think I will send them my shot of the one at Vailhourles, which they didn’t have.

      Like

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