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Notes from the Paynesville Historical Society. . .

Wash day ws much harder in the past than today

By Dolores Hislop

We are all familiar with the washing of clothes and consider it a necessary "chore." However, I think most of us would agree it is much easier than when our grandparents thought about washing clothes and ironing them.

I will give a brief history of the invention of the washing machine and irons and then relate how early pioneers washed clothes.

Clothes were washed by hand in earlier times and sometimes a wooden stomper was also used to agitate them if a tub was available. A mechanical washing machine was introduced in Chicago in 1848 and that along with a zinc washboard, was the start of making clothes washing easier.

By 1853, the first wringer was made and in 1872 an improvement on the wringer made it adjustable with a wooden, spring-loaded roller.

The stomping of clothes to agitate them while washing changed when Cyrus Dodge invented the "Easy" washer. At first it was simply a funnel-shaped object into which a stick was inserted on the end of the funnel thus making a suction-type device. He later improved the machine to become a washing machine.

In 1892, there were still over a million washboards in use in the United States as it was still favored to clean clothes. Sears, Roebuck & Company had a washing machine listed in their catalog in 1895 and by 1902 there were a dozen different models listed in their catalog. They were either hand operated or foot pedaled.

The familiar Maytag brand of washer began in 1907 and was made by the Parsons Band Cutter & Self Feeder Company of Newton, Iowa. It consisted of an agitator that hung on the bottom of a hinged lid, and looked like a four-legged milk stool. It agitated back and forth by a crank that fastened to a flywheel on top of the lid.

The name of the company was changed to Maytag by Mr. E. L. Maytag, a former partner of the firm in 1909. Next, a one-half horsepowered motor was used to run the motor and powered by gasoline in 1914, and an exhaust pipe was also added to vent the fumes outdoors. This was a very popular machine.

Changes also occurred in 1922 when an agitator was made to come up through the bottom of the tub and in 1939, controls were added to make the washer semi automatic. In 1946, a fully automatic washer was made and improvements continue to be made to this day on that design.

The iron developed from the use of a tube into which a hot poker was pushed through and the clothing item was moved and pressed about the poker. The iron a lot of people hear about is the Sad Iron developed by Mrs. Potts and made in the United States. It was designed with a point on each end and a detachable cold handle and there were three flat irons which were warmed on the stove.

Fluters were also something people used to press ruffled clothing. They are also featured in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog. It consisted of a series of grooves for a base invented called manglers and later versions featured a lever which was pressed with the knee to bring the roller into contact with the hot iron.

This does not seem to have become popular, however, and as time passed, the electric iron of today is the one popularly used. There were other versions of irons also but the ones mentioned were used by most people of their time.

On the wall of the laundry exhibit at the museum, there is posted the process of washing clothes: sort, soak, boil, rinse, blue, starch, dry, sprinkle, and iron.

The wash day started with carrying water to a copper boiler that sat on a wood fired stove. The water when heated was transferred to a wash tub and homemade soap was added as a cleaning agent. The clothes were scrubbed on a washboard or with an agitator in the tub. Bluing was added to the water to make clothes whiter.

It is interesting to note that one manufacturer of bluing was in Litchfield, Minn. It was made in the home of the daughter and son-in-law of Nancy Eleanor Stewart whose picture appeared on the label. It was called Mrs. Stewart's Liquid Bluing and was also used as a washable writing ink.

Clothes also needed to be starched for the appearance of stiffness. The starch was boiled to the right consistency before used on the clothes. Then the hanging up of clothes on the clothesline had to be done. Also, when dry, the clothes had to be sprinkled with water for ironing. It was easier to iron if one had more flat plates to be heated on the stove during that process. The old irons were heavy to use compared to the ones in use today so it was a "chore" to do the ironing.

We have several of the above-mentioned items on display in the museum for you to see on your visit. It is interesting to note the progress of the washing machine and irons to those of today. Even though wash day is still not looked forward to, I am glad that it is easier than that of my grandmother.

Information for the article was taken from: A History of Man's Progress from the Pioneer Village, Minden, Neb.; Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog 1902; Meeker County Memories, 1987; an article from Hobbies Magazine, 1951; and Paynesville Historical Museum articles.