For centuries, people on sea voyages washed their clothes by placing the dirty laundry in a strong cloth bag, tossing it overboard, and letting the ship drag the bag for hours. The principle was sound: forcing water through clothes to remove dirt. Early hand-operated washing machines attempted to incorporate the same principle through the use of a “dolly” —a device resembling an upside-down milkmaid’s stool, which fitted into a tub and pummelled clothes, squeezing water out, then permitting it to seep back in.
So numerous were the inventions devised to lessen the drudgery of washing clothes that the origin of the washing machine is unclear, though it is generally agreed that in the early 1800s, in Western Europe, the concept of placing laundry in a wooden box and tumbling the box by means of a hand-operated crank was beginning to catch on. Mothers and daughters took turns cranking the box’s handle hour after hour. The rotating-drum concept carried over to the clothes dryers of the day. A typical dryer, invented in France in 1800 by a M. Pochon, was known as the “ventilator.” Hand-wrung clothes were placed, damp, in a circular metal drum pierced with holes, and as a handle was cranked the drum rotated above an open fire. Depending on the strength of the fire and the height of the flames, clothes would either dry slowly or burn, and they always acquired the aroma of the hearth, and sometimes its soot. None of these hand-cranked dryers ever threatened to obsolete the clothesline.
The first electric clothes washers, in which a motor rotated the tub, were introduced in England and America around 1915. For a number of years, the motor was not protectively encased beneath the machine. Water often dripped into it, causing short-circuits, fires, and jolting shocks. Touted in advertisements as “automatic,” the early electric clothes washers were anything but. Many washers were manually filled with buckets of water and also drained by hand. Clothes were removed saturated with water, and the wash “cycle” continued until the operator decided to pull the machine’s plug. Not until 1939 did washers appear that were truly automatic, with timing controls, variable cycles, and preset water levels.
It seems that liberation from one of the most ancient of household chores came rather later than expected.