Some people believe the washing machine was more important in women’s liberation in the 20th century than the pill, the right to work, or the vote.

In the days before the invention of the washing machine, people typically did their laundry in a common space. Washhouses, also called lavoirs, were built in the countryside of Europe where there was enough money to do so.

The water was carried from a nearby stream or spring and fed into a structure that may have been nothing more than a roof with no walls. This washhouse typically featured two basins, one for cleaning and the other for rinsing, connected to a continuous flow of water. Additionally, a stone lip was inclined towards the water and served as a surface against which wet laundry could be beaten.

Laundry was considered a task exclusively for women, who were responsible for cleaning their family’s clothes. Washerwomen, also known as laundresses, were responsible for collecting the dirty clothes of others and invoicing by the piece.

As a result, washhouses became a sort of institution or gathering place since many women were required to visit them monthly. It was a place where only women could meet, talk about whatever was on their minds or chat.


Washhouse in Sanremo, Italy, at about the turn of the 20th century.

Because hot or boiling water is more effective than cold water in removing dirt, filling large metal cauldrons (also known as “wash coppers”) with fresh water and heating them over a fire was common practice. It is possible to agitate laundry kept in a tub using a paddle.

The process of fulling is considered one of the earliest forms of cleaning by machine. In a fulling mill, the fabric was pounded with wooden hammers referred to as fulling stocks or fulling hammers.

In 1691, the first English patent for a machine that could be considered a washing machine was granted. In January 1752, the British magazine The Gentleman’s Magazine showed a picture of an early washing machine.

The washing machine concept by Jacob Christian Schäffer was first published in Germany in 1767. Henry Sidgier was granted a British patent for a rotating drum washer in 1782, and Edward Beetham was able to market some “patent washing mills” in England during the 1790s.

One of the first advances in washing machine technology was using closed containers or basins with grooves, fingers, or paddles to help scrub and rub the clothes.

The individual using the washer would use a stick to press and rotate the clothes along the textured walls of the basin or container, agitating the clothes to remove dirt and mud.

Model Steam Laundry, Colfax, Washington, circa 1900.

The laundry industry experienced an entire turning point due to the Industrial Revolution. In her history based on the Great Exhibition of 1851, Christina Hardyment contends that the development of domestic machinery was the driving force behind women’s liberation.

The mangle, also known as a “wringer” in American English, was invented in the 19th century. It consisted of a frame with two long rollers and a mechanism to turn the rollers.

The mangle was much more efficient than twisting by hand. It modified the box mangle used predominantly for pressing and smoothing cloth.

Southern Ohio family in front of new washing machine, 1911.

In the meantime, inventors of the 19th century further mechanized the laundry process by creating a variety of washing machines that were operated by hand to replace the laborious practice of rubbing a person’s hands against a washboard.

Most required turning a handle to move paddles inside a tub. Then, some machines from the early 20th century used an agitator powered by electricity. Most of these machines consisted of nothing more than a tub held by legs and equipped with a mangle controlled by hand.

The Thor washing machine was the first commercially available electric clothes cleaner in the United States. It is believed that the 1907 Thor, manufactured by the Chicago-based Hurley Electric Laundry Equipment Company, was the first washer ever to be propelled by an electrical current. Hurley is credited with being the inventor of the first automatic washing machine.

The new electric Thor, which Hurley engineer Alva J. Fisher had designed, was granted a patent on August 9, 1910, three years after the invention of the device.

Wife of miner on washday. Southern Coal Corporation, Bradshaw Mine, Bradshaw, McDowell County, West Virginia. 1946.

In 1928, the US sold 913,000 electric washing machines. However, sales suffered due to the high unemployment rates that continued throughout the depression years; by 1932, the number of units delivered had fallen to approximately 600,000.

During the 1930s, washer design advanced. The machinery was subsequently enclosed within a cabinet, and increased focus was placed on the electrical and mechanical safety of the system. Spin dryers eventually replaced the dangerous power wringers or mangles of the past.

By 1940, 60 percent of the 25,000,000 wired houses in the United States had an electric washing machine. Although built-in spin dryers were not unusual, most of these machines came equipped with a power wringer.

Many US manufacturers introduced competing for automatic machines (mainly of the top-loading type) in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many American manufacturers introduced automatic machines that competed with one another. These machines were primarily of the top-loading type.

In 1947, General Electric also debuted its first top-loading automatic variant. This machine was equipped with many of the standard functions of modern machines.

The Hoover Company also produced an early model of an automatic washing machine that used cartridges to configure different wash cycles. The machine had a slot that the cartridge could be inserted into, and a mechanical reader would control the machine based on the information it read from the cartridge.

Several companies manufactured semi-automatic machines requiring the user to make changes at one or two points during the wash cycle.

One form of the common semi-automatic washer, which Hoover manufactured in the UK until at least the 1970s, featured two tubs, one of which was equipped with an agitator or impeller for washing and the other of which was a smaller tub that was used for water extraction or centrifugal rinsing.

Electric laundry machines did not gain popularity in the United Kingdom or most of Europe until the 1950s. This was primarily due to the negative effects of World War II on the consumer market, which did not begin to recover meaningfully until the late 1950s.

Due to the extremely high cost of completely automatic washing machines, the earliest electric washers were single-tub, wringer-type machines.

Due to the affordable nature of Rolls Razor washers, twin-tub washing machines experienced a short surge in popularity during the 1960s. Washing machines with twin tubs have two tubs, one significantly bigger than the other.

The larger tub only has an agitator in the bottom, whereas the smaller tub is a spinning drum for centrifugal drying.

Some machines can move used laundry water into a separate tub, where it can be captured and stored before being pushed back out for further reuse.

September 1938. “Farmwife washing clothes. Lake Dick Project, Arkansas.”

A 1766 illustration of Schäffer’s washing machine.

A simple, crank-operated washing machine.

A 1923 electric Miele washing machine with a built-in mangle.

“Woman’s Friend” machine (c. 1890).

The Rotary Machine, 1858.

Thor Electric Washing Machine, 1935.

Maytag Wringer Washer, 1940.

Gravity Washer, 1900

Washing Machine, 1890.

Washing Machine, 1928.

This state-of-the-art washing machine boasted that a woman could do a load in six minutes by sitting and turning the crank handle. To encourage sales, mail-order catalogs allowed potential buyers to order one at no cost and test it in their homes for a month.

1916 vintage advertising illustration for Maytag Washing Machine.

Kentucky Utilities Company, woman demonstrating wringer-type washing machine, 1943.

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