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Before the advent of washing machines, there was another innovation in the cleaning of clothes, developed in Ireland and thereafter exported to a few other locales -- a combination of poorhouse and prison known as the Magdalene Laundry. Here, 'women of the street' would be taken for penance through labor. Reportedly, the institution began in the late 1700s as a voluntary concern, with women free to come and go as they pleased, the place and the work therein being available primarily to wean prostitutes off of their disfavored trade. But over time, slowly, insidiously, entry into these places became less and less voluntary, and in the 1800s, egress became well nigh impossible, and the women sent there occupied broader and broader spheres of 'sinfulness.'

Because the Magdalene Laundry came to be seen as a place for sinners to pay a due price for their sins -- and because, in the eyes of the prevailing religious power, all were sinners -- essentially anybody who lacked some source of political power of their own could be picked up off the street by the local police and delivered to such a place, on any pretense. Local priests wielded tremendous power over the discernment of whose lives could be upset in this way. A girl could be sent there for promiscuity-- many young women were sent for having gotten pregnant, even if by rape-- or simply for boldness, mouthing off, having an independent spirit. The nuns who ran these institutions were then sure to do everything to break that spirit. In the name of penitence for God and Christ, those forced into these places were required, as the name suggests, to do laundry (as well as sewing in circles) for ten hours or more per day, six days a week, on as sparse a diet as could be supplied. They might, upon entry into the system, be stripped of their names, given new ones at the whim of the governing nuns and be made to respond to these henceforth.

The outside world was equally forbidden to them. Many girls relegated to the Magdalene Laundries were thereafter destined to die there, without ever again seeing friends, family, or any sliver of the world outside the walls of their location. Worse yet was the psychological suffering imposed therein. The residents were routinely reminded that they were there in penance for their being vile and worthless sinners. Even those who had been delivered into the system as children, or who had ended up there because an abusive husband found them to be a convenient way to be rid of an insufficiently cowed wife, were called tramps and whores, denigrated as deserving of a lifetime of servitude. They were forbidden from speaking, except in strictly enforced and monitored prayers. Transgressions would ultimately end in beatings. Sexual abuse was not unknown, nor the occasional suspicious death.

To the outside world, these horrors remained unknown, or at best unimportant. To hotel chains and institutions of the Irish government, the Magdalene Laundries were simply places to get large quantities of laundry done cheaply, with the proceeds going to benefit the Church. The last Magdalene Laundry closed its doors in 1996.

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Want to know more? Read: "A very Irish sort of hell," 5 April 2003 -- an interview with a one-time resident of a Magdalene Laundry.

Oolong has pointed me to another article, wherein the call is made for the UN to investigate the Magdalene Laundries, and to a fine node, The Magdalene Sisters, a fictionalized account of these institutions, and to the existence of a Joni Mitchell song on the issue as well.

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For THE IRON NODER CHALLENGE 5: THE FERROUS FRONTIER