For the Love of Laundering Or: On the Advent of Washing Machines 

A row of washing machines in a laudromat
Image credit: Jeremy Sallee on Unsplash

Last week while doing a load of laundry, I walked unsuspectingly into a plumbing disaster. 

Answering the call of my beeping washing machine late on a sunny Sunday morning, I opened the door as I always do, confidently expecting to find a flowery scented, freshly-spun load of clean clothing. Instead, for all the clear skies outside, I was met by a sudden domestic deluge. The machine had failed to drain properly and so, instead of discreetly ferrying away any excess water as per our usual agreement, my frontloader promptly emptied gallons of the stuff onto my feet and kitchen floor. 

That wave of blood pouring out of the elevator doors in The Shining had nothing on what I was contending with. I promptly exhausted my household supply of towels in the mop-up and then set about in search of a cause. I discovered that the pipes under my sink (into which the washing machine drains) had a blockage. What’s more, several hours of frantic plunging and every type of acid you can buy without a background check did nothing to dislodge it. 

What followed were days — days — of plumbers coming and going, mopping their brows and scratching their heads as they tried and failed to determine either the cause or the solution to the problem. They all looked at me with equal measures of apology and suspicion; their words said ‘Sorry we weren’t able to help’ but their eyes said ‘What in God’s name did you put down there?’ The answer — which finally arrived after three separate plumbers had all but dismantled my entire kitchen over the course of a week — was, rather anticlimactically, nothing. At least, not any one thing. As a rule, I avoid putting anything weird down the pipes, but a few days into the endeavour I had become convinced that some sketchy criminal must have been sneaking into my flat while I slept and disposing of body parts down my kitchen sink. Instead, it seemed to have just been a simple case of old plumbing suffering from decades of frequent use.

Why do I bring this up under the pretext of talking about laundry? Well, because during all of Waterlogged Gate I was without the use of my sink, dishwasher, and washing machine. Those first two I could happily take or leave. I’ll fill up the tea kettle in the bathroom and do dishes in a bucket all day long if I have to, as long as you don’t take away my washing machine. Anything but that.

Doing laundry is my happy place. I love every part of it. Sorting, washing, drying, folding, even ironing. Give me a detergent to sample, a stubborn stain to do battle with, a sweater that needs hand washing — I simply can’t get enough of that stuff. I’ve got a load spinning as I type this and, to be honest, I’m barely able to concentrate from excitement. So, while I was forcibly separated from my beloved washer-dryer for days on end and with no resolution in sight, I began to truly appreciate the miracle of modern laundering and wondered about its history.

Jahn Ekenaes women doing laundry 1891
Jahn Ekenaes’s 1891painting of women doing laundry on a frozen lake
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Cleaning clothes was, as you might expect, an analogue business for the vast majority of human history and still is for a majority of people living in developing nations. Our species has spent thousands of years toiling over rocks and river beds trying to clean our various vestments. We did, however, come up with some useful tech to help us along the way before the arrival of washing machines proper. 

Soap, for one, has been around for millennia and, before our present standards of personal hygiene took hold, was put to use by ancient cultures on their clothes more often than on their bodies. Various other developments proved equally handy, including washboards (used for scrubbing), washing paddles (used to beat the water out of clothing), and washhouses. 

The latter hints at one of the biggest ways in which laundering has changed in the developed world. As technology has improved, washing our clothes has become an increasingly solitary affair, whereas in the past it would typically have been conducted communally (and still is in many parts of the world). Often known by the French term lavoir, a public washhouse channelled water into some kind of built structure, often containing basins for washing and rinsing, in addition to areas in which laundry could be beaten, dried, and sometimes even boiled.

Women doing laundry at a washhouse 1850-1925
A washhouse in Sanremo, Italy, at about the turn of the 20th century
Public domain: Carlo Brogi / Public domain

While there are exceptions (Ancient Roman fullones, or laundry workers, being one example), this labour has historically been carried out by women in most societies. With so much of women’s time and energy once being tied up in cleaning clothing, the advent of the modern washing machine — rather like, say, the invention of the bicycle, the typewriter, or any number of other domestic appliances — has done a great deal to shift gender norms since its inception. 

That inception was not a simple, linear business, however. Just ask Lee Maxwell, the owner of a record-breaking 1 600 washing machines and author of Save Women’s Lives: The History of Washing Machines. ‘I tell folks quite often that the evolution of many different things is how we got our modern washing machine’, he said. ‘You got to be an evolutionist not a creationist when it comes to washing machines because there are many different techniques in that evolution.’

There were also a few unusual chinks to be found along the evolutionary chain. The aforementioned Roman fullones, for example, would collect human urine from public lavatories for use in the laundering process. While their practice is unlikely to inspire many modern readers to do the same, it turns out that the Romans were onto something since the ammonia in urine acted as a cleaning agent.

Even once the Industrial Revolution kicked off and marked the arrival of mechanised washers in the nineteenth century, there were still a couple of curious dead ends along the way. One machine, for example, was specifically intended for people on the go. Designed in 1871 by William Clack of Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin, it was effectively a barrel on wheels that would wash clothes while being drawn along by a horse. Another, arriving a decade or so later in 1885, killed two birds with one stone. The brainchild of a woman named Sara Seawell, this machine was meant to wash clothes while being powered at either end by a pair of seesawing children.

Woman using washing machine powered by storage batteries
A woman using an early washing machine powered by storage batteries
Image credit: National Parks Gallery / Public domain

A slew of patents and designs — typically involving some combination of rotating barrels, metal agitators, and even mechanical wringers — arrived by the mid-1800s to meet the demands of booming urban populations across Europe and North America and a growing middle class with money to spare. Within a few decades, the first electrically powered machines appeared after the turn of the twentieth century and just prior to the First World War. Only a decade or two after that, during the interwar years, the first automatic machines arrived on the scene. The first of these was made by Bendix Home Appliances in 1937 and could fill, rinse, and spin-dry automatically, and even featured a timer. Despite being costly to manufacture, it sold in the hundreds of thousands prior to WWII halting production. By 1950, two million had been sold.

Automatic washing machines have since become a domestic staple in the developed world and the evolution of new technology continues apace. Smart washing machines have been on the market for several years now and can already detect dirt levels and adjust washing procedures on the fly, all while being controlled remotely. Moreover, new advances — including, for example, washers utilising ultrasonic sound waves for laundering purposes — are on the horizon. All of which promises a great many happy laundry days in the future. Although, if anyone’s asking, I’d suggest adding a sensor or similar around the drainage area just to keep an eye out for blockages that risk spoiling all the fun.