How Washing Machines Have Become an Indispensable Part of Modern Life
Before the advent of washing machines, all clothing was washed by hand. The only ‘washing machines" people knew of, were flat rocks that stood near running streams. Women would head out to the streams with their loads of laundry and hand-scrub the clothing scrubbing them against the rocks to rid them of the dirt. To this day, millions of women across the world (especially in remote villages), continue to wash their clothing in this manner. Not only is this method of washing clothes extremely time-consuming, but it is tedious as well.
Some Facts About Washing Clothing
• Right through the Middle Ages in England, laundering was more of a group activity and was done only a couple of times every year.
• Women would take advantage of good weather, congregate and work together, and use this time as an opportunity to talk with their friends.
• The wealthy folk in the 17th century had servants working for them; these servants did most of the laundry, while washerwomen came in to help them with this task.
• In homes of people that couldn’t afford to hire washerwomen, the mistresses and their maids would manage all the laundry themselves. The clothing would be washed and wrung out by hand and would then be spread over sweet-smelling bushes or lines, to dry.
• Scottish women had a rather interesting way of doing their laundry; they sang as they did their laundry and danced up and down on clothes that were soaked in buckets of water, to get them clean.
• Laundering was always considered to be ‘women’s work’, and men always shied away from it. Since it was shameful for a man to do his own laundry, if a single man/widower didn’t have the means to hire a washerwoman, he would wash all of his clothes stealthily in the middle of the night, to ensure that his neighbors wouldn’t notice it.
• By the 1830’s, commercial laundries started making an appearance in mining towns and seaports across America. These services were primarily used by men that didn’t have any women to do their laundry for them.
An Opportunity That Was Waiting to be Explored
During the 1848 Gold Rush, most miners across California washed their own clothing and Sunday was officially their laundry day. They fit in chores such as shopping for all their weekly supplies and many also observed the Christian Sabbath or attended services at places of worship. In case they found gold, Sunday was also a day for celebration and saloons were full of miners that were drinking, gambling and making merry.
The wealthier miners that didn’t have quick access to laundry cleaning would simply send their clothes out to Hong Kong, China, to be washed, starched & ironed and paid $1 per shirt for the service. It also took 2-4 months for these clothes to be delivered back to them, all cleaned and ready for wear.
The Enterprising Chinese Enter the Scene
During this period, many Chinese men had migrated to California to try their luck at gold mining. Needless to say, the prejudiced white miners treated them very poorly and the Chinese were permitted to mine only the dirt that the former had worked through already.
Since they were unable to earn their living by mining gold, some entrepreneurial Chinese men identified the hidden opportunity to make money - they set up laundries in mining towns. While men in the U.S considered it beneath their dignity to do laundry, it was very common in China for men to manage this task.
The Hardships that Pioneer Women Faced
On the prairie, pioneer women had quite a tough time ensuring their families had clean clothes to wear every day and had a tedious time doing this:
• Monday was typically their wash day and most of the day was spent doing laundry.
• They had to ensure that the clothes of all their family members were clean and in good condition by Sunday mass.
• Scheduling the clothes-washing chore on the same day, gave them the chance to mingle with other women and spend some time in casual banter.
• Doing the laundry was a tough job; they had to draw water from the well in the vicinity and lug these buckets to the common washing area; the water would then have to be heated over a fire, before it was used to wash the clothes.
• All the clothes were manually scrubbed on washboards, wrung and then hung out on lines to dry.
• It was no surprise that pioneer housewives mentioned in their journals and diaries that doing the laundry was the task they disliked the most.
The Evolution of the Washing Machine
A number of inventors from the 19th century worked on the concept of mechanical washing machines; and in 1831, the Cataract washer was invented. It was quite a crudely-structured machine with just a cylinder with a crank and washboard attached to it. There is no clear record of how successful this particular launch was. However, it paved the way for many other inventors to come up with ideas of their own and this is how the evolution of the washing machine began:
• James King patented the 1st drum-style washing machine in 1851.
• Hamilton Smith patented his rotary washing machine in 1858.
• William Blackstone of Indiana later built an innovative washing machine as a birthday present for his wife, in 1874.
• By 1875, around 2000 patents had been submitted for various mechanical washers, In the United States.
The earliest machines were fitted with a wringer on the top; this helped prepare the clothes for drying. It was usually the laundress or housewife that did all the washing. The washer would first wash the clothing after which, all the excess water would be wrung out of the clothes, by running them through the rollers.
• Alva J. Fisher invented Thor, the 1st electric-powered washing machine. The Illinois-based Hurley Machine Company of Chicago, introduced this in the market in 1908, and the machine was patented in 1910.
• Maytag, the farm equipment manufacturing company launched a machine they called the ‘Pastime’; It was no more than a wooden washtub mounted on legs.
• Later, Maytag launched around this time was named the ‘Hired Girl washer’. This name was derived from the fact that washing machines were used more as substitutes for servants.
Slowly but surely, the social scene was also changing; and a larger number of women were joining the workforce in factories, offices and shops. Maids were hard to come by, and housewives found themselves saddled with all the household chores. In the early 20th century, most families used to hire laundresses. Alternatively, they got all their laundry done at commercial laundries.
• At that point of time, Maytag had launched 2 different types of hand-washers in the market. One of them had a cylinder while the other had wooden pegs which efficiently dragged the clothes right through the water to get them clean. However, the founder of the company, Frederick Maytag wanted a much better washing machine.
• In 1911, the Whirlpool Corporation started as the Upton Machine Co. in Michigan and started producing electric motor-driven wringer washers.
• The Schulthess Group was another biggie in this space. Its origins date back to over 150 years. They started producing their first washing machines in 1909.
• Howard Snyder was a chief engineer, who worked for the Maytag Company. He was extremely inventive and innovative and liked to tinker with machinery. In 1922, he came up with a major improvement. He developed an efficient method of forcing water through the clothes, using a vane agitator that was fitted to the bottom of the tub. This electric washing machine invention brought in a significant change in the manner in which laundry was done.
• In 1949, Schulthess Group backed the washing machine, punched card control invention.
• Europe started producing its first automatic washing machines in 1951.
• The 1st microchip-controlled automatic washing machines were produced in 1978.
Today, washing machine technology is advancing by leaps and bounds. Most washing machines available in the market are controlled by microprocessors. The different systems, mechanisms and sensors are all focused on automating the entire process. Many companies have also launched washer-dryer combination units. These automated the entire laundering process right from washing to drying.
This piece of equipment has surely come a long way from the time when it was nothing more than a drum with a wringer attached to it. Without a doubt, the washing machine has now become an indispensable household appliance; it has significantly revolutionized households, laundering and lifestyles.
Attribution: Toilets, toasters & telephones by Susan Goldman Rubin