Before the advent of the washing machine, apart from watercourses, laundry was also done in communal or public washhouses (also called wash-houses or wash houses), especially in rural areas in Europe or the Mediterranean Basin. Water was channelled from a river or spring and fed into a building or outbuilding built specifically for laundry purposes and often containing two basins – one for washing and the other for rinsing – through which the water was constantly flowing, as well as a stone lip inclined towards the water against which the washers could beat the clothes.
Such facilities were much more comfortable than washing in a watercourse because the launderers could work standing up instead of on their knees, and were protected from inclement weather by walls (often) and a roof (with some exceptions). Also, they didn’t have to go far, as the facilities were usually at hand in the village or at the edge of a town. These facilities were public and available to all families, and usually used by the entire village. The laundry job was reserved for women, who washed all their family’s laundry (or the laundry of others as a paid job). As such, washhouses were an obligatory stop in many women’s weekly lives and became a sort of institution or meeting place for women in towns or villages, where they could discuss issues or simply chat, equated by many with gossip, and equatable to the concept of the village pump in English. Indeed, this tradition is reflected in the Catalan idiom “fer safareig” (literally, “to do the laundry”), which means to gossip, for instance.
Many of these washhouses are still standing and even filled with water in villages throughout Europe. In cities (in Europe as of the 19th century), public washhouses were also built so that the poorer population, who would otherwise not have access to laundry facilities, could wash their clothes. The aim was to foster hygiene and thus reduce outbreaks of epidemics.