What on earth is a lavoir? You may well ask! If I was to say a lavoir is a communal wash house, would that help? Perhaps a little, though I reckon a bit more of an explanation is probably required.
What is a lavoir?
A lavoir is the French word for an old public wash house or washing place, for laundry not bodies! They are found in many (possibly most) villages and towns in France and vary in shape and style from basic troughs to elaborate buildings. Surprisingly many of them still stand and increasingly are being preserved for historical purposes.
The history of lavoirs
The earliest date from the late 17th century but it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that they really took off. Realising the link between hygiene and health, Napoleon III initiated a vast public health programme to tackle the problem of industrial pollution and epidemics of cholera, smallpox and typhoid. In 1851 a law was passed offering 30% subsidies to municipalities to construct public washhouses and so, lavoirs sprung up all over France.
The proliferation of these washhouses had an almost revolutionary effect on the lives of women. Not only did they make it easier to do laundry but they became the place to meet and socialise, something that women hadn’t really had before.
Men were not allowed at the washhouse. This was women’s territory, a place to chat, moan, let off steam and laugh among friends making the hard work of laundering more bearable. The social importance of the lavoir cannot be underestimated.
Lavoirs continued to provide a service for women (both practical and social) until well into the 20th century when laundry was once again revolutionised by the arrival of hot water in private dwellings and the best invention ever, the washing machine!
The construction of a lavoir
Washhouses were built in almost every town and village, either by a river or other source of fresh water. The design varied from the most basic which was simply a trough with flat edges to elaborate structures with tiled roofs, walls, columns and sections for different stages of laundering.
If there was no natural source of water nearby, in the middle of a town for example (like below in a tiny square in the old town of Nice), a cistern would be built.
How and when were lavoirs used?
Surprisingly lavoirs weren’t actually used for washing clothes and linen rather they were for rising them. The dirty washing would take place at home and would be brought out to the washhouse once a week to rinse, bash, wring and dry.
Large linen, such as bed sheets, was only washed two to four times a year, known as la grand lessive – the “big wash” – (up from once a year in medieval times!)
Modern day lavoirs
As the use of washhouses waned many of them fell into disrepair. Preserving them was not a priority, but as time has passed more and more municipalities are now acknowledging their historical importance and restoring them. Nowadays you’ll see lavoirs full of water used as fountains. Or perhaps left natural like a pond.
Some are restored but empty, others are put to practical use to display market wears. Many still serve the function of a gathering place, though men are no longer banished!
You’ll often see teenagers hanging out around a lavoir, the flat sides of the basin are comfortable to lounge on. (Look closely at the photo above and you’ll see a couple of kids in the shade of the lavoir in St Jeannet.)
Some towns are now investing a great deal of money in their lavoirs. This one (below) in Villefranche sur Mer is an ongoing project costing 250,000€ (thanks to Villefranche resident Chrissie for the photo and info).
The variety of styles of lavoirs on the Côte d’Azur is huge. All these photos are taken in the surrounding towns and villages. This one in La Turbie is particularly impressive, and I think lovely, with its beautiful trompe-l’oeil scenes of bygone laundry days.
From ornate to simple, the lavoir below is at the end of my lane. It serves as a drinking fountain which is very welcome when walking back up the hill from town on a hot day. There are at least three basic lavoirs like this one in Roquefort les Pins.
I find lavoirs charming, whether they’re simple or elaborate. I love the glimpse they give us into the past. How about you? Do you have any where you are? I feel like they’re a very French thing, so do let me know if they exist elsewhere. I’d love to hear from you.
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