Saturday, May 2, 2009

*147. MAMIPI: Livelihood in Laundry

WASH 'N WEAR. A group of labanderas for American families in Camp Stotsenburg do their laundry at a nearby stream in Angeles. Ca. 1912-14.

Just two decades ago, the only laundry services available in Pampanga are those in Angeles and the areas near Clark, and these catered primarily to the get-up-and-go lifestyle of American servicemen and their families. Today, mechanized laundry shops are gaining popularity in the country, a response to the demands of an upwardly mobile market who wants his laundry done and delivered just as fast as his fastfood pizza.

The shift from hand-wash to machine-wash has certainly taken its toll on today’s labanderas or laundrywomen, whose kuskos-kusot-kula skills have been taken over by state-of-the-art, coin-operated, liquid-detergent and fabric softener-fed washing machines, with spinner and dryer to match.

More than a century ago, however, any one with busy hands and an enterprising spirit could make a living out of laundering someone else’s clothes. Indeed, laundering was a legitimate and honorable job, although it paid very little—20 centavos per day—the same fee as one would pay a seamstress, but a weaver and a cigar box filler earned more. By 1902, the rate has gone up to 40 centavos.

The most proficient in clothes washing were surprisingly the menfolk—and the hardworking and fastidious Chinese were tops at this trade, often rising to become laundry foremen, in charge of supervising a group of labanderas. But Filipinas, too, became expert mamipi, adept in scrubbing dirt and grime away with a brisk hand rub and lots of tender, loving care. A complete service included home pick-ups of the dirty laundry, ironing, starching and folding of clothes, delivered to the client in neat bundles.

The tools of the trade were simple enough—a round batya hewn from a tree trunk, palu-palo (a wooden clothes beater) , commercial soap (the speckled blue and white sabon Intsik was favored) and iskoba (scrub made from coconut fiber). Washing was done in the clear waters of a stream or a river, and was almost always, a communal event, with labandera groups working as a pack.

Before pressing, the fabric was soaked in “gogo”, starch solution made from rice or cassava, to stiffen and give it form. The butterfly sleeves of the native baro, for instance, had to be starched to make it stand. Indigo blue or “tina” was added to the starch solution to heighten the whiteness of clothes—a bluish kind of white was the standard.

Ironing implements were a bit more complicated—one could iron large items like blankets, using the dry heat of “buli”, a foot operated wooden presser. The cloth item was rolled around a wooden cyclinder, which was rolled on a plank using another wooden piece, on which one stood and slid from side to side, thus flattening the fabric. Mostly, clothes were ironed after starching using open brass flat irons—plantsang korona. Live coals were put into this heavy iron with a wooden handle and was then run over clothes. They came in different sizes, the better to maneuver on the different parts of the garment. There were minuscule plantsa koronas for cuffs and sleeves.

Eventually, the safer “plantsang de baya”, which had an iron cover, was favored as it kept embers from flying out and burning the fabric. Ironing was done on a burlap-covered, ironing board called “pakabayo”, as it resembled a horse when unfolded. To make the plantsa glide better, it was allowed to rest at intervals on a bed of banana leaves.

When American servicemen started arriving in Camp Stotsenburg for their military assignments together with their families, Kapampangan laundrywomen were employed as outside help to take care of this backbreaking, but necessary task. Caroline S. Shunk, wife of an American army officer stationed at the camp in 1916, observed their work process and habits:

“The laundresses were sitting out on the porch, pounding the clothes with heavy sticks. I make them boil the clothes now on the American stove, which they consider most unnecessary and cruel. They have to use starch, too, instead of rice-water, which makes the clothing like stiff paper and unfit to wear; and it is another grievance that they have to put starch in the clothes and not eat it! They iron on a blanket spread on the floor, and as they smoke long cigars during the process, the clothing is apt to be burned and scorched. They do up the white and khaki uniforms most excellently, however”.

Labanderas, like kutseros, are a vanishing breed, but it is inspiring to know that at one time, the cleanliness of a nation rested in their hands. As the same foreigner noted and concluded, “The Filipinos are not dirty people—quite the contrary, they are the most bathed, washed, and ironed creatures you can imagine, and sally forth from wretched-looking little nipa huts, spick and span and immaculately clean.”


Pungsu said...

1. Washing was done in the clear waters of a stream or a river, and was almost always, a communal event,
Long before the Americans came my ancestors had a deep well, which was called “talaga”. A lot of families had this source of water and it was shared with all neighbors.

2. Before pressing, the fabric was soaked in “gogo”
Soaking clothes in “gogo” will get you nowhere. You have to dissolve starch in water and boil it before you can use it.

3. Ironing implements were a bit more complicated—one could iron large items like blankets, using the dry heat of “buli”, a foot operated wooden presser.
Maybe you can educate us your readers where you got the word “buli”. My ancestors had a wooden presser but it was not called buli but pagulong.

alex r. castro said...

There--I chnaged it into "starch solution".

We still have our wooden presser, now a household antique. We've always called it "pambuli"--the term used by the late yaya of my late father who once-upon a time used this particular implement.

It entails rolling the fabric around a wooden cylinder (looks like a rolling pin) and a flat peiec of wood is put on top on which one balanced himself, rolling from side to side. Well, at least that's how I remember it.

"Buli" literally means "to smoothen or to polish"--and it could refer to the foot motion as one operated the wooden press, like polishing the floor. Or, applied to laundry, since the creases are smoothened out in the process, you could say that the creases have been polished off. It is a Kapampangan word, but is also used by Tagalogs and Ilocanos.

If you have access to the book Filipino Heritage, there is a picture of a wooden foot press there and is called "buli".

Pungsu said...

Too bad I do not have access to the book you mentioned. This word "buli" translated as "bruñir" is really suspect as to imply usage for clothes and cloth materials. I consulted several English, Spanish, Tagalog and Pampango dictionaries and there is unanimity that it means to smoothen, polish and shine hard materials but not cloth. I do not doubt that the picture you mentioned was captioned as such. Tagalog-Spanish dictionaries would have the word press as "planchar" as "pirinsa" or "pirisa" in Pampango. Sadly, Bergaño does not mention this word. I found the word in Gil Magat's book published 1915.
By the way, after the "plantsang corona", the heavy solid flatiron shaped like today's flatirons were used. These were rested on charcoal amber to be heated up instead of the charcoal put in the chamber like that of a "plantsang uling". These are really heavy and nowadays they are used as bookends.