How the Washing Machine Liberated The Masses
A humble domestic device has a revolutionary impact on the lives of billions around the world
Where would we be without the washing machine?
For centuries, men and women dreamed of a device that could take away the intolerable toil of washing clothes by hand. However, it was only the galloping wonderment of (relatively) modern-era technology which could make that dream a reality.
The washing machine: You put your clothes in one part and 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 or other similar 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 a silent and shamed outsider 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 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.
Freedom from laundry
Electric washing machines were first mass-produced in 1906, as consumers realised these not-so-new-fangled devices could save 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 could fulfil 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 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 improved markedly during the 1930s; with the addition of an all-important drum mechanism enclosed within a closed 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 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.
Timeline of the iconic Bendix Deluxe washing machine
1936: A brand is created
The Bendix Corporation licenses its name to Bendix Home Appliances for a 25% stake in the company.
1937: Automatic washing
Bendix Home Appliances is the first company to market a domestic automatic washing machine.
The Bendix Home Laundry would be recognised as a front-loading automatic washer by any modern user of such machines. It has a glass porthole door, a rotating drum and an electrically driven mechanical timer. The machine is also able to autofill, wash, rinse and spin-dry.
Initially, the lack of any vibration damper means the machine has to be secured firmly to the floor. The machine also lacks an internal water heater.
Although sales are slow to begin with, the benefits of an automatic machine soon become clear to potential consumers.
The Bendix Automatic Home Washer, which is front-loading, is launched, accompanied by a brochure entitled How to use your Bendix Automatic Washer.
1941: World War II
A total of 330,000 Bendix Home Appliances automatic washing machines are sold in the U.S.
Production halts during the war, until sales resume five years later, in 1946.
1947: The Deluxe arrives
An improved front-loading automatic model (the Bendix Deluxe) is introduced to American consumers.
General Electric also introduces the first top-loading automatic machine this year.
1951: Corporate sale
In February the Bendix Deluxe is advertised in the English edition of Ideal Home magazine.
The Avco Manufacturing Corporation also purchases Bendix Home Appliances, South Bend, Indiana, combining Bendix Appliances with Crosley Bendix Home Appliances.
1954: Even more change
Australian newspapers display advertisements describing the Bendix Deluxe as a “miracle of modern times” and boast that it “takes the entire business of washing completely out of your hands”.
1956: Another corporate sale
The Avco Manufacturing Corporation sells Bendix Home Appliances to Philco.
Despite the high cost of automatic washing machines, American manufacturers had difficulty in meeting pent-up demand 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 tubs, wringer-types and during the 1960s, twin tub machines also briefly became popular (helped by the low price of the Rolls Razor washers used in them), with automatic washing eventually only 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 jeans, those adverts seemed to be saying to demanding 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 environmental panic 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 life for billions of clean and (vaguely) happy consumers.