The invention: Electrical-powered machines that replaced hand-operated washing tubs and wringers, making the job of washing clothes much easier.
The people behind the invention:
O. B. Woodrow, a bank clerk who claimed to be the first to adapt electricity to a remodeled hand-operated washing machine
Alva J. Fisher (1862-1947), the founder of the Hurley Machine Company, who designed the Thor electric washing machine, claiming that it was the first successful electric washer
Howard Snyder, the mechanical genius of the Maytag Company
Until the development of the electric washing machine in the twentieth century, washing clothes was a tiring and time-consuming process. With the development of the washboard, dirt was loosened by rubbing. Clothes and tubs had to be carried to the water, or the water had to be carried to the tubs and clothes. After washing and rinsing, clothes were hand-wrung, hang-dried, and ironed with heavy, heated irons. In nineteenth century America, the laundering process became more arduous with the greater use of cotton fabrics. In addition, the invention of the sewing machine resulted in the mass production of inexpensive ready-to-wear cotton clothing. With more clothing, there was more washing.
One solution was hand-operated washing machines. The first American patent for a hand-operated washing machine was issued in 1805. By 1857, more than 140 patents had been issued; by 1880, between 4,000 and 5,000 patents had been granted. While most of these machines were never produced, they show how much the public wanted to find a mechanical means of washing clothes. Nearly all the early types prior to the Civil War (1861-1865) were modeled after the washboard.
Washing machines based upon the rubbing principle had two limitations: They washed only one item at a time, and the rubbing was hard on clothes. The major conceptual breakthrough was to move away from rubbing and to design machines that would clean by forcing water through a number of clothes at the same time.
An early suction machine used a plunger to force water through clothes. Later electric machines would have between two and four suction cups, similar to plungers, attached to arms that went up and down and rotated on a vertical shaft. Another hand-operated washing machine was used to rock a tub on a frame back and forth. An electric motor was later substituted for the hand lever that rocked the tub. A third hand-operated washing machine was the dolly type. The dolly, which looked like an upside-down three-legged milking stool, was attached to the inside of the tub cover and was turned by a two-handled lever on top of the enclosed tub.
The hand-operated machines that would later dominate the market as electric machines were the horizontal rotary cylinder and the underwater agitator types. In 1851, James King patented a machine of the first type that utilized two concentric half-full cylinders. Water in the outer cylinder was heated by a fire beneath it; a hand crank turned the perforated inner cylinder that contained clothing and soap. The inner-ribbed design of the rotating cylinder raised the clothes as the cylinder turned. Once the clothes reached the top of the cylinder, they dropped back down into the soapy water.
The first underwater agitator-type machine, the second type, was patented in 1869. In this machine, four blades at the bottom of the tub were attached to a central vertical shaft that was turned by a hand crank on the outside. The agitation created by the blades washed the clothes by driving water through the fabric. It was not until 1922, when Howard Snyder of the Maytag Company developed an underwater agitator with reversible motion, that this type of machine was able to compete with the other machines. Without reversible action, clothes would soon wrap around the blades and not be washed.
Claims for inventing the first electric washing machine came from O. B. Woodrow, who founded the Automatic Electric Washer Company, and Alva J. Fisher, who developed the Thor electric washing machine for the Hurley Machine Corporation. Both Wood-row and Fisher made their innovations in 1907 by adapting electric power to modified hand-operated, dolly-type machines. Since only 8 percent of American homes were wired for electricity in 1907, the early machines were advertised as adaptable to electric or gasoline power but could be hand-operated if the power source failed. Soon, electric power was being applied to the rotary cylinder, oscillating, and suction-type machines. In 1910, a number of companies introduced washing machines with attached wringers that could be operated by electricity. The introduction of automatic washers in 1937 meant that washing machines could change phases without the action of the operator.
By 1907 (the year electricity was adapted to washing machines), electric power was already being used to operate fans, ranges, coffee percolators, flatirons, and sewing machines. By 1920, nearly 35 percent of American residences had been wired for electricity; by 1941, nearly 80 percent had been wired. The majority of American homes had washing machines by 1941; by 1958, this had risen to an estimated 90 percent.
The growth of electric appliances, especially washing machines, is directly related to the decline in the number of domestic servants in the United States. The development of the electric washing machine was, in part, a response to a decline in servants, especially laundresses. Also, rather than easing the work of laundresses with technology, American families replaced their laundresses with washing machines.
Commercial laundries were also affected by the growth of electric washing machines. At the end of the nineteenth century, they were in every major city and were used widely. Observers noted that just as spinning, weaving, and baking had once been done in the home but now were done in commercial establishments, laundry work had now begun its move out of the home. After World
War II (1939-1945), however, although commercial laundries continued to grow, their business was centered more and more on institutional laundry, rather than residential laundry, which they had lost to the home washing machine.
Some scholars have argued that, on one hand, the return of laundry to the home resulted from marketing strategies that developed the image of the American woman as one who is home operating her appliances. On the other hand, it was probably because the electric washing machine made the task much easier that American women, still primarily responsible for the family laundry, were able to pursue careers outside the home.
See also Electric refrigerator; Microwave cooking; Robot (household); Vacuum cleaner; Vending machine slug rejector.