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.
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.
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.”
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