I have a question for you. In all of history — or just to make it easier for you, let’s just say from the 1800s till today — what one invention was the most important invention to family life and especially the wife and mother? If your wife or mother is anything like mine, this was the best invention of all time.
I’ll give you one more hint. This machine was invented on or about 1907. Professor Lee Maxwell has written extensively concerning this machine, and he said there is no verifiable record in the U.S. Patent that credits any one person for this invention, although a Mr. Alva J. Fisher does hold a patent for one specific invention: the Thor electric washing machine. Mr. Fisher has ample credibility since he holds a Guinness World Record for his collection of over 1,060 antique washing machines!
You probably guessed by now that I am writing about the electric clothes washing machine. Washing machines had been in use prior to this date, powered by hand-cranks and steam contraptions. But the Thor used an electric motor to turn the clothes through the water, and is therefore credited as the world’s first automatic washing machine. There had been many applications for a patent prior to this date, but the Thor was credited with being the first electric washing machine.
The very first washing machines were simply barrels or boxes that were filled with hot water from the fire the housewife had started early on wash day, and a shaved bar of lye soap. You would take the clothes and put them in the receptacle and roll or spin the barrel or box until you grew so tired you had to quit. It was OK though because the housewife would have to go in to start dinner anyway. That was called a wash day. Does anyone remember when a wash day took all day? They didn’t separate colors as I was taught. They just wanted to quit smelling like the south end of a northbound cow.
After washing, the clothes were either hung on a rope across the yard or laid on the grass until they dried. Some of the more delicate articles were washed separately. Although I have not investigated what a delicate was in those days. When we lived in Santa Maria, my mom would take us boys to the fields so we could pull weeds, chop cotton or pick cotton, pick beans or whatever job was available. I truly hated it. So one Sunday while mom was separating the clothes to wash, I asked if I could stay at home the coming week and I would do the laundry, fix dad his lunch and vacuum the floors. She looked at me for a moment and said, “Are you sure you want to do that?” I helped her put another pile of dirty clothing into the wringer washer we had and replied. “I hate the fields,” I told her, and so she said she would talk to dad.
The next morning she handed me a list of things that were to be taken care of by me. For the next week I did everything my mom had asked and she was pretty happy. She said she was going over to the coast with my dad and I would have to do the wash. I didn’t worry, I think I was about 11 or 12 when this all happened. I grabbed all the laundry baskets and headed out on the porch so I could separate the color of the clothes. I had to separate the clothes, fill the washer, put in the soap and let the clothes slosh around for a while, drain the washer, fill with clean water and rinse the clothes. From there I had to put everything through the wringer, take them outside and hang them up in the sunshine so they could dry. If there were any that needed ironing, I also had to do that.
Each washday I had to wash for mom, dad and four boys. This was not a part-time job. In fact, one day I had to wash and rinse everything three times. You see, my dad was a smoker of Camel cigarettes. He carried the pack in his overalls in the chest pocket. I always checked the pockets of the clothing I was washing, but I just didn’t think to see where he carried his smokes. So I washed his overalls and lots of other type clothes and didn’t even notice that the tobacco had stained everything until I went to hang them outside.
That was the day I decided there must be a better way, but to be honest it was many years later that I married My Angel and I bought a front-loading washer. My mother would have probably given one of her boys away for one of these washers. They are really cool, you just put the clothes in and forget it. The washer does everything, but like all things mechanical, it does break at times.
This time it was the rubber bellows that keeps the water from coming out as it washes. My Angel called me in to see the hole in the bellows and the fact that one of the clamps had broke. A quick phone call later and the parts were on the way. To finish this up, I’ll say we replaced all the broken parts over the next two days and the washer is like new again.
However! Lorraine’s mom is staying with us now and she was shocked that we could work together and not get mad at each other. I have to admit it took a few catastrophes before we could do this, but we finally figured out it didn’t get done any faster if we were arguing, so we just kept at it until it was fixed.
But I can see why the washing machine is the most labor-saving device ever invented for the American family. If you think of another labor-saving device, drop me an email.