The piles of unwashed laundry are getting frisky. They sit in the corner looking innocent enough, but as soon as I turn my back they’ve multiplied. Despite training everyone in the house to use the washing machine, I tend to be the only one who possesses the initiative. According to the L’Ossovatore Romano, the newspaper of the Vatican, the single most influential factor in the emancipation of women is the washing machine. I don’t agree with this statement as it conveniently downgrades the impact of birth control on women’s lives. Setting aside the emancipation question for now, what about the humble washing machine – how did it get here and how has it affected our lives?
The first English patent for a washing / wringing machine was issued in 1691, a device a little more primitive than we’re accustomed to today. Early machines tried to imitate the motion of hands on washing board. Observation of life on the high seas demonstrated the effectiveness of agitation – sailors would hang their washing overboard in a cloth bag, the dragging motion and water forced through it rendering the clothing clean. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Canadians for the invention of the first agitation machine around the 1920’s. In an age of greater equality, one would think that such a labour saving device would be saving the labour of all – not so. If statistics in the U.S. are representative of other countries, almost 90% of laundry is done by women. The average American family does 8-10 loads of laundry each week. Were all of that to be done by hand, there would be no time for much else, not even to complain about inequality.
You would imagine then, that every woman would be delighted to own a modern washing machine…I once had a boyfriend who watched his elderly Mother struggle with the wash, first in the twin tub with laborious manual filling, putting laundry and detergent in and waiting for it to agitate sufficiently, then draining it and doing the whole business again and then, into the spinner to further rinse and wring out the water. That wasn’t enough because then she’d put it through the mangle. The mangle took the rest of the water out before the laundry could be hung to dry. Her son bought her a surprise one day, a modern, time saving, space saving washing machine - which she refused to use. I guess she didn’t like the change. She kept it next to the twin tub and mangle, a pretty cloth draped over it like a coffin at a wake. It would eventually become a convenient counter surface for sorting the clothes on.
Before twin tubs or mangles there were just tubs, no running water, gas or electricity – needing plenty of time and hard labour. A single load involved boiling, rinsing and you would need over 50 gallons of water to do one load. This had to be transported from pump or well or possibly the tap to whatever receptacle you were using. Consider the carrying, lifting heavy water and water sodden clothes, sheets and all in the days of weighty wool and cotton and voluminous clothing. I didn’t always have a washing machine and can sympathise with these early women. Some of my years in Scotland were spent in a small caravan without running water or electricity. That was fine I thought at first, there is water all around me, I’ll simply take my washing to the nearby shore. Don’t ever try this! The first discovery was that detergent (which is also not great for sea life) or ordinary soap doesn’t lather with seawater. While I was figuring out this conundrum I placed my knickers and socks in the water to soak, forgetting the most important thing. I was not in a pool or tub but in the sea, a body of water subject to tidal flow. My knickers and socks were flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, on their way to Ireland or who knows where. Eventually I developed a solution to this problem much like women of the past.
I started collecting rainwater in big barrels and this was the beginning of a remedy. It took some planning but with time and soaking I was able to get through my wash. Many years later, I still had an unusual appreciation for the washing machine due to my caravan experience. What a miracle it was to simply put the wash and detergent in and press a button. One morning some years ago I was gathering wash to do exactly that, put a load on. I left the door of my front loading machine open while I nipped upstairs to the children’s rooms to get their wash. Having found nothing, I came back down and closed the door, pushed the button on and then went to have a soak in the bath. Half an hour passed and then I came out, wondering why I hadn’t heard the washing machine. I looked at it and it seemed fine, it was on and I couldn’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be running. I bent down to look in the window and saw, on top of the pile of wash, our small kitten and she wasn’t moving. The next five minutes were tense as I tapped on the glass, wondering why she wasn’t moving and waiting for the time lock safety device to let me open the door. When I heard the click of release I threw open the door and pulled, a very dazed looking cat out of the wash. She had simply gone to sleep. It was just as well that I came out when I did because I also found out that while she was moving, the load was not evenly distributed and this safety device saved her. The machine would not run with an unevenly distributed load. In a few minutes she would have been washed. She must have climbed in while I was upstairs looking for laundry. In my home it’s now standard to check our machines for cats before we turn them on.
Despite these traumatic experiences, I still really value the convenience of a washing machine. Today I read about Ida B. Wells, an amazing heroine of American history and worth looking up. When she was quite young herself, both her parents and one of her siblings died of yellow fever. She was determined to keep the family together and worked very hard to do so. In her words,
“I came home every Friday afternoon, riding the six miles on the back of a big mule. I spent Saturday and Sunday washing and ironing and cooking for the children and went back to my country school on Sunday afternoon.” We have it easy comparatively, although we still like to complain.
It’s apparent that labour saving devices such as washing machines have liberated us in one regard, probably freeing us up for other work and expectations that ensnare us in different ways. I know I wouldn’t like to go back to a scrubbing board and the hard graft of hand washing. Interestingly, James Dyson, inventor of the famous Dyson hoover and other machines, claims that 15 minutes of hand washing cleans clothes better than one hour in the best German machine available. He says that hand washing flexes the clothing, which machines cannot do. Don’t despair; there is hope as he also says that he has invented a machine that does precisely this.
Washboard: An often wooden or glass board with ridges, of which the fabric can be rubbed up and down vigorously against to scrub and it release dirt.
Twin tub: A machine with two built in basins, one for washing the clothes in requiring the addition of water by hose, the other which spins, for rinsing and wringing the clothes out.
Mangle: A device consisting of two rollers and either a handle to crank it or an electric device. The clothing is put between the two rollers and the water is squeezed out of it.
Ida B. Wells: A crusader for justice and defender of democracy. She was described as a militant and uncompromising leader for her efforts to abolish lynching and establish racial equality. She challenged segregation decades before Rosa Parks, ran for Congress and attended suffrage meetings.
The Daily Telegraph, March 9, 2009
© S. Marian, July 3, 2012