Today's world offers scant occasion to think about the washerwoman, but the need for clean clothing is probably as old as humanity itself. Much of Florence Price's world depended on the washerwoman or laundress to meet this need. In a world in which the overwhelming majority of women were only allowed to hold service jobs for men and the overwhelming majority of Blacks were only able to work as domestic servants for Whites, Black washerwomen were figures both ubiquitous and tragic, disdained despite the essential nature of the work they did and the pride they took in doing it well. They picked up others' soiled laundry, pumped gallons of water and used harsh lye soap to rub clothing on scrubboards, sometimes used urine to remove the more stubborn stains, hung the clothing out to dry, ironed and folded it, and then, at the end of each day, hauled it back to its owners — only to begin the process anew the next day, six days a week. In the South they did this in slavery until the end of the Civil War, but even after Emancipation they did it under the punishing financial oppression of Jim Crow economics. In the north the situation was little better: the hours were long and the pay, although notoriously low, was used either to supplement the family income or — more commonly — to support the family entirely, since northern Blacks in many areas were barred from pursuing trades by segregated trade-union policies. Although some very few, such as Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) and Oseola McCarty (1908-1995), were able to surmount these circumstantial constraints, they were the rare exceptions to the rule of oppression and exploitation that characterized Black life (and still does).
The title of Price's Thumbnail Sketches does not specify that the subject of her music is Black, but the music itself makes this clear through abundant uses of Black vernacular styles. And the music makes clear that its washerwoman worked long and dreary days in which gayety and dreams are fleeting in a long and dreary existence. The first movement begins with a musical depiction of sunrise — not the glorious sunrise familiar from much concert music, but a washerwoman's sunrise: darkly voiced harmonies ascend slowly through the first five bars, reaching a fortissimo climax in m. 6, followed by a series of slowly rocking pentatonic chords and, in mm. 11-13, a beautiful evocation of birdsong as the washerwoman begins her morning. The original version of the work included "Dreaming at the Washtub" as its second movement — a movement characterized by vacillations between two contrasting themes, the first vaguely wistful, the second perhaps frustrated or angry. "A Gay Moment" (the second movement in the final version of the suite) bespeaks Price's genius at writing juba dances, while the last movement, with its frequent starts and stops and intrusive fermatas in the context of a harmonic language that is generally peaceful, suggests that the washerwoman, however exhausted and barely able to make it home, is at peace with and proud of her day's work. This set of character sketches is thus significant in Price's output, for with the Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned it represents Price working to humanize a stereotypical figure, using her music to give personality, depth of character, and dignity to a class of individuals of low socioeconomic standing who were despised by the very world that relied on them and their work.
— John Michael Cooper
II. A Gay Moment
III. Evening Shadows
II. Dreaming at the Washtub