For thousands of years, the task of washing all clothing, towels and bedding was an everyday fact of life. The first step in this process was collecting the water from streams, rivers, cisterns, springs, or wells. Commonly transported by hand in buckets, the water was heated on stoves or over fires. Fabrics were then soaked, hand scrubbed, and carefully rinsed. After this, the fabrics were wrung out by twisting and squeezing them to remove water. Finally, the damp materials were hung up to dry. In many homes, the soap itself was a product of household labor. Needless to say, this was difficult and time consuming work.
In the late 1700’s, the first washing aid was invented – the washboard. Constructed with a rectangular frame, its row of wooden ridges greatly improved the hand washing process. Washboards are still used in many parts of the world, and its wooden ridges have since been replaced by corrugated metal, and sometimes by glass.
During the middle of the 1800’s, steam-powered machinery emerged for use in commercial laundries. Smaller machines for home use followed. Many of these were hand powered and later, some used small gasoline engines. Hand cranked rollers for wringing out the water were another popular invention, and these were soon incorporated into early washing machines. Some machines began to use powered rollers. However, these caused many serious hand injuries and were eventually outlawed.
Electric washing machines became popular as electricity became more common in homes during the late 1920’s and early thirties. Electric machines introduced the spin dry cycle which replaced rollers for water removal, and the spinning drum suggested another companion machine, the clothes dryer. In some cases, both washing and drying were combined in one machine. This concept is still used for small washer/dryer combo machines popular in RV’s, where space saving is always important.
Most people today can’t imagine life without washing machines and clothes dryers. However, when you consider all the hours of work saved by running water, washing machines and clothes dryers, the cost of these modern conveniences represent one of the best values we’ll ever have.