Updated: Apr 20
The evolution of a kitchen device that liberated the people as well as cleaned their clothes.
Where would we be without the washing machine?
For it is the washing machine, and particularly the automatic washing machine, which has liberated us and improved the quality of our lives like few other products made popular in the 20th century.
The washing machine: You put your clothes in one part, some washing liquid, pods or powder in another, and these magical machines clean your clothes and allow you to mix freely again in society (lockdown measures permitting). Washing machines are one of those dividing line technologies (like mobile phones). Have one and you are a part of mainstream society, lack one and you become one of the silent and shamed outsiders looking in.
Alongside the refrigerator and the vacuum cleaner (you see, you want to say ‘fridge’ and ‘hoover’ there, don’t you?) the washing machine has liberated a generation of women and allowed them to do the same kinds of crappy jobs that the husbands of previous generations of women had been doing for years.
In terms of being a mere device, the first British patent under the category of Washing and Wringing Machines was issued as long ago as 1691. A drawing of an early washing machine then appeared in the January 1752 issue of The Gentlemen's Magazine, and in 1782 Henry Sidgier was issued with a British patent for the all-important rotating drum washer.
So you see, for centuries men and women have dreamed of the creation of a device that could take away the intolerable toil of washing clothes by hand, though it was only the galloping wonderment of modern era technology that could make that dream a reality.
Electric washing machines were first mass-produced in 1906, as consumers realised these not-so-new-fangled devices could save them time and free them from the drudgery of domestic work. The result? Society's expectations of cleanliness shot up. Which in turn created a new kind of demand for the products which fulfilled that expectation, which in turn raised expectations only higher again.
And what was the result of all this expectation rising? A growing market for an ever cleaner social and personal space, and a set of industries (from manufacturing to advertising) that also grew to feed this insatiable demand.
Ah, the sweet smell of a successfully evolving free market and an itch that quite simply can never be satisfactorily scratched (sometimes literally).
Washing machine design then improved markedly during the 1930s; with the all-important drum mechanism being enclosed within a cabinet as more attention was paid by manufacturers to electrical safety, followed by the introduction of spin dryers, and by 1940, the appearance of power wringers.
Bendix then introduced the world's first automatic washing machine in 1937, an event which led almost directly to where we are today, and one which brought together all the tasks associated with the washing of clothes into a single device of almost mythical intent. In appearance and mechanical detail, that first Bendix machine was not unlike the front-loading automatic washing machines produced and cherished today.
An improved front-loading automatic model (the iconic Bendix Deluxe) was introduced to American consumers in 1947, just in time for General Electric to introduce the first top-loading automatic machine.
Despite the high cost of automatic washing machines, American manufacturers had difficulty in meeting pent-up demand for them following the Second World War, whilst in the UK sales did not take off until the 1950s, along with all those other consumer devices denied ration-impoverished British consumers. In the UK early electric washers were generally single tub, wringer-types and during the 1960s, twin tub machines also briefly became popular (helped by the low price of the Rolls Razor washers used by them), with automatic washing eventually becoming commonplace in the 1970s.
Quite a bit behind the Americans then, at which point the revolution was televised in glorious colour in-line with the growth of supermarket shopping, which in turn made the automatic washing machine an absolute must-have for aspirational consumers: Give yourself a car, a fitted kitchen, a cheap overseas holiday and a new pair of stretch denim, those adverts seemed to be saying to consumers with money or credit to spend, because recession or no recession we should all have these things.
To improve our lives.
Which they duly did, with automatic washing machines becoming part of, integral even, to our homes in the process. Like electricity, the telephone, television and now the internet, an automatic washing machine is almost something we simply have to have and a fundamental requirement of modern life.
Unless poverty or a fresh pandemic lockdown gets in the way, of course, and another of life’s consumer essentials slips over the border of denial, even if today it is a fact of consumer life for millions of Britons.