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For centuries, people on sea voyages washed their clothes by placing the dirty laundry in a strong cloth bag, and tossing it overboard, letting the ship drag the bag for hours. The principle was sound: forcing water through clothes to remove dirt. Catharine Beecher, an early advocate of bringing order and dignity to housework, called laundry "the American housekeeper’s hardest problem". Women from all classes tried to find ways to get relief from doing laundry. Some hired washerwomen and others used commercial laundries. Eventually mechanical aids lightened the load.

"In the early days, without running water, gas, or electricity even the most simplified hand-laundry used staggering amounts of time and labor. One wash, one boiling and one rinse used about fifty gallons of water—or four hundred pounds—which had to be moved from pump or well or faucet to stove and tub, in buckets and wash boilers that might weigh as much as forty or fifty pounds. Rubbing, wringing, and lifting water-laden clothes and linens, including large articles like sheets, tablecloths, and men’s heavy work clothes, wearied women’s arms and wrists and exposed them to caustic substances.

They lugged weighty tubs and baskets full of wet laundry outside, picked up an article, hung it on the line, and returned to take it all down; they ironed by heating several irons on the stove and alternating them as they cooled, never straying far from the hot stove."

Washing Machine 1927    The First Washing Machines
The earliest manual washing machines imitated the motion of the human hand on the washboard, by using a lever to move one curved surface over another and rubbing clothes between two ribbed surfaces. This type of washer was first patented in the United States in 1846 and survived as late as 1927 in the Montgomery Ward catalogue. The first electric clothes washers, in which a motor rotated the tub, were introduced into America about 1900. The motor was not protected beneath the machine and water often dripped into it causing short-circuits and jolting shocks. By 1911, it was possible to buy oscillating, cylinder, domestic washing machines with sheet metal tubs mounted on angle-iron frames with perforated metal or wooden slat cylinders inside.
Manufacturing Challenges
From a technological perspective, washing machine manufacturers faced a number of challenges. These included discovering a method of transferring power from the motor to the mechanism, finding a suitable motor with sufficient initial starting torque, and ensuring that the operator did not get an electrical shock during operation.

In the transference of power, some washing machines were chain driven, some belt driven and others used shafts and gears.

To overcome the initial resistance in starting a washing machine, a fractional horsepower motor which would not burn out or overheat during the start-up period was used. This was usually a 1/8 or horsepower motor, manufactured out-of-house by Westinghouse or Robbins and Myers.

To prevent electric shocks, the stator and rotor of the machine were enclosed in a housing equipped with a fan to prevent overheating.

From the customer satisfaction perspective, a machine that would wash without shredding the clothes needed to be developed. This meant that if the original scrubbing machines were used, the machine had to be operated at different speeds for different textiles. To overcome the problem, washing machines that sloshed water through the clothing by agitation were developed. Either the tub moved or a baffle placed inside the tub moved.

Early washing machines had a heavy, dirty, cast-iron mechanism mounted on the inside of the tub lid. The introduction of a metal tub and reduction gears to replace this bulky apparatus was a great improvement. By 1920, the coopered wooden tub was no longer being manufactured.

Beatty Brothers of Fergus, Ontario was the first company to produce an agitator washing machine. The early Beatty machines had ribbed copper tubs which were nickel or nickel-chromium plated. In the US, the first firm to adopt agitator technology was Maytag. The vertical orientation of these machines became the industry standard replacing the horizontal rotating axis of earlier machines.

Starting in the 1920s, white enamelled sheet metal replaced the copper tub and angle-iron legs. By the early 1940s, enamelled steel was used and sold as being more sanitary, easier to clean and longer lasting than the other finishes. The sheet-metal skirt was also designed to extend below the level of the motor mount.

In the early 1920s, a number of Canadian machines were offered with built-in gas or electric water heaters. By the 1930s, domestic water heaters were in many homes and the washing machine heater was of little use. The addition of a motor-driven drain pump at this time moved the machine one step closer to complete automaticity.

The next development of the washing machine was the fitting of a clock timing device which allowed the machine to be set to operate for a pre-determined length of wash cycle. Now, the operator no longer needed to constantly monitor its action.

By the early 1950s, many American manufacturers were supplying machines with a spin-dry feature to replace the wringer which removed buttons, and caused accidents involving hair and hands. In 1957, GE introduced a washing machine equipped with 5 push buttons to control wash temperature, rinse temperature, agitation speed and spin speed.


Never Done: A History of American Housework
by Susan Strasser / Paperback: 361 pages / Owl Books; (November 2000)
It is truly an eye-opening perspective on housework, not to mention a history of the tools of the trade. For bringing housework into the light of historical scholarship, Strasser deserves to have her name become a household word.
Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things
by Charles Panati / Paperback - 480 pages Reissue edition (September 1989) / HarperCollins
Discover the fascinating stories behind the origins of over 500 everyday items, expressions and customs
More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave
by Ruth Schwartz Cowan / Paperback Reprint edition (February 1985) / Basic Books (Sd)
Inventions such as washing machines, cotton cloth, and even white flour acted as catalysts by giving the less well-off a chance at the comforts the prosperous already possessed, but in general it was men and children whose chores were relieved by these innovations.

A Social History of American Technology
by Ruth Schwartz Cowan / Paperback: 352 pages / Oxford University Press;  (December 1996)

This book surveys the history of American technology from the early 17th century to the present,
focusing on the key individuals, ideas, and systems that have shaped the important technological
developments throughout American history.

Household Wonders  
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00
HOUSEHOLD WONDERS tells the story of seven taken-for-granted inventions that make modern life comfy, fast and clean: the stove, sewing machine, refrigerator, air conditioner, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, toaster and mixer.

National Museum of Science and Technology
The largest of its kind in Canada devoted to Science and Technology education.

The History of the Washing Machine
A lot of appliances were about long before electricity, some would use motors to operate
them but most were operated by hand.
The History of Washing Machines
James King was an American who in 1851, patented the first washing machine to use a drum. Lots of COOKIES and POP-UP ADS at this about site.
Washing Machine Repair Manual
Sample page from the
Cheap and Easy! Washing Machine Repair manual..
Maytag Collectors Club
In 1893 Frederick Louis Maytag, who came to Iowa as a farm boy in a covered wagon, joined his two brothers-in-laws and George W. Parsons to start a farm implement company. They produced threshing machine, band-cutter and self-feeder attachments invented by one of the founders.

Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised March, 2005.

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