Today is laundry day in our household. The Everloving — a self-described laundry goddess — loves to split the pile of cloths and linens into a much larger variety of “types” than the simple whites, coloureds, reds that my mother taught me, and using all sorts of settings on the machine. Thinking of this got me musing about how drastically this particular household function has changed in the last 80-odd years.
Time was that the laundry represented a full day of hard physical labour, one that most housewives faced each week with dread. Today, that has all changed, at least in the westernized world. These days, with automatic machines and efficient driers, each load takes perhaps just four or five minutes of physical involvement to load, unload and fold; the rest of the work is done by the machine and its software. Five or six wash and dry loads can be completed with less physical effort than a single wash load (not including wringing and drying) meant to my grandmother.
In my research on the retail and social changes on Commercial Drive in the middle of the last century, one of the key factors of modernization that emerges in the 1930s and 1940s is the evolution of many hardware stores into appliance retailers. Prior to the introduction of TV and music systems in the 1950s, it was the steady improvement in laundry technology that drove this cultural process.
A successful electric washing machine with a perforated rotating cylinder had been patented in 1910. By the late 1930s, Bendix had introduced the first front loader, which washed, rinsed, and dried automatically. This generation of machines also introduced the centrifugal spinner, thus eliminating the need to wring out the washed clothes by hand. Agitators and tumblers were added in the 1950s. Each of these improvements took some while to arrive in the average household but by the 1960s the core technologies that washing machines use to this day had been completed.
As an aside, it is worth mentioning that virtually all domestic technology engineers in the 1920s to 1950s were men, men who would have had little or no first-hand knowledge of the drudgery of household laundry. I assume that the power of innovation and persuasion by their female partners played a significant role in many of these improvements.