What Was Used Before the Washing Machine?

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What Was Used Before the Washing Machine?
What Was Used Before the Washing Machine? (Image: adventuresofagoodman.com, littlegenealogy.com, affordableaffiliates.com, flickr.com, histru.bournemouth.ac.uk)

The grip of modern technology makes it easy to forget how life was pre-technology, and laundry is one of the most relevant examples. In ancient times, the normal practice was to wash clothes near rivers, streams and ponds, followed by the beating clothes on whatever rocks were available to scrub them. This is still the standard practice in many Third World countries. In Europe and America wooden bats---or washing beetles---were used to wash clothes.

History

From ancient history to the early 20th century, the basics of laundry remained a back-breaking, hard job, that housewives would dedicate an entire day to completing. The job focused on intensive labor that took many hours. Unlike modern times, people did not wear their clothes for one day and then deem them dirty enough for washing. Instead, due to the sheer labor involved, clothes were considered really dirty by the the time that a housewife finally hauled them out for the task.

An antique copper wash broiler used to heat hot water, and boil clothes.
An antique copper wash broiler used to heat hot water, and boil clothes.

Types

Standard tools used for the laundry, included a wood stove, along with plenty of wood to keep the fire going, wash kettles, wash pots, wringers, bluing material, bristle brushes and lye soap. One important tool was the washboard---a wooden frame surrounding ribbed, crimped metal---which women used to scrub clothes before washing machines came along.

An example of a washboard used by 19th-century housewives.
An example of a washboard used by 19th-century housewives.

Features

A host of additional tools were required after clothes were washed. These devices included wringers, which housewives used to press excess water from clothes and leaving them damp and ready to hang for drying. This particular task was done with clothespins on a clothesline, or even inside if the weather proved too rainy or cold.

Boiling laundry over an open fire.
Boiling laundry over an open fire.

Significance

Another method involved sorting the clothes, then collecting buckets of water from a handy local source like the house well or the town pump. White clothes were washed first so that dyes from colored clothes would not stain them. The housewife then scrubbed the clothes with soap on her washboard in a tub of water. The clothes then were put in a boiling kettle of water---sometimes on top of a cook stove or, more often, on an outdoor fire with a giant wash kettle on top. The clothes would be boiled for up to half an hour while stirring the tub with a stick to keep the clothes moving.

Housewife using her wringer to squeeze out laundry.
Housewife using her wringer to squeeze out laundry.

Additional Tools

After boiling the clothes were rinsed to remove the soap and then squeezed out manually or with a wringer before being hung to dry. There were many kinds of wringers that housewives could use well into the 1800s. There were some innovations like the James Washer, a combined tub that could be agitated and attached to the wringer.

Warning

Nineteenth-century housewives would have to iron the clothes, usually with heated up cast irons.

Washing was done for other reasons than just removing dirt, such as killing any germs or insect eggs that might be lurking inside the clothes. This was a priority in the 1800s, when sanitation and sewage systems varied greatly from area to area, and were not standardized to the extent they are today.

An early washing machine, now with electric wringer from the 1940s.
An early washing machine, now with electric wringer from the 1940s.

Early washing machines

There were many early non-electric washing machines built, like the James Washer, but as early as the 1600s rotating drums for laundry first appeared. Often, these devices could be dangerous because of the potential for grabbing onto fingers. The first electric patented washing machines arrived in 1904, a trend that gradually began to reduce the labor burdens associated with the task.

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