Chicago (AFP) Oct 21, 2007
A century after the first electric washing machines promised to take the work out of laundry, it doesn't seem like today's multi-cycle magicians are saving us much time.
Sure we don't have to boil the water and lug it by hand over to big metal tubs. Nor do we have to strain our arms running sopping wet clothes through a wringer thanks the advent of the spin cycle.
But, somehow, the pile of washing has managed to grow ever larger with every seemingly time-saving advance.
"It used to be that people used to let their clothes get really dirty before they washed them," said Susan Strasser, author of "Never Done: a history of American housework."
"Now, we use a towel once and we throw it in the wash."
Laundry was always the most dreaded household chore and the first to be offloaded whenever women had enough extra money to send it out.
It took hours to haul the water from a well, heat it on a stove, soak and scrub the clothes, and then wring them out with hands that became raw and chapped from the hot water and caustic cleaning agents like lye and lime.
Then the clothes and linens had to be hung on a line and pressed with an iron heated on the stove or fire.
While laundry tools are nearly as old as the chore itself, H. Sidgier of Great Britain is credited with inventing the first washing machine in 1782: a cage of wooden rods with a handle for turning.
But the scrub board, invented in 1797, proved far more popular until machines with drums and clothes wringers emerged about 50 to 60 years later.
By the turn of the 19th century, hundreds of companies were selling washing machines with ad campaigns promising to eliminate the drudgery of "blue Mondays."
The Nineteen Hundred Washer Company, which later became Whirlpool, even stamped "Save Women's Lives" on the side of their machines.
"They said they were guaranteed to prevent farm women from committing suicide," said Lee Maxwell, a retired engineering professor who runs a museum in Colorado with over 1,000 antique washing machines.
"The ads would try to get at the emotions of the man ... because the work of farm women was unbearable."
But laundry was still exhausting, and dangerous, work.
Water still had to be heated, hauled and drained, the crank was still turned by hand and women often got their fingers or hair caught in the wringer.
Ads for electric washing machines first started emerging in 1906, cutting down on the muscle power needed to agitate the clothes. An electric wringer soon followed, as did water pumps and heaters.
They were of little use for most people until the 1920's and 1930's when running water and electricity reached the American masses.
In 1922, Maytag introduced the first finned agitator which forced water through the clothes rather than dragging the clothes through the water.
A popular innovation, the company is now the oldest America washing machine brand and celebrates its 100th anniversary this month.
But even so, washing machines ended up making more work for a lot of women, rather than less.
"Obviously it made housework easier, but it meant commercial laundries stopped being used so it brought the work back to the household," said Strasser, who is a history professor at the University of Delaware.
In 1937, Bendix introduced the first automatic washing machine which could wash, rinse and spin dry in one cycle.
By the 1950s washing machines were ubiquitous, and available in a range of colors from pastels to gold and coffee tones.
About 95 percent of US households now own at least one washing machine and growing number are installing a second unit in the closets of master bedrooms, according to Appliance magazine.
Increased energy efficiency and new functions such as larger-capacity front loaders and quieter cycles has also spurred sales, with nearly 9.5 million washers and eight million dryers shipped to US stores last year.
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