Electric Washing Machine Is Introduced Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When American manufacturers married electric power with the old technology of hand-operated washtubs and wringers, both the labor and the time involved in washing clothes were significantly reduced.

Summary of Event

Until the development of the electric washing machine in the twentieth century, washing clothes was a tiring and time-consuming process. With the development of the washboard, patented in the United States in 1833, dirt was loosened by rubbing. Clothes and washtubs had to be carried to a water source, or the water from a stream or well had to be carried to the tubs and clothes. After washing and rinsing, clothes were hand-wrung, hung up to dry, and then ironed with heavy irons that were heated on stoves. Inventions;electric washing machine Washing machine, electric Household appliances;electric washing machines [kw]Electric Washing Machine Is Introduced (1910) [kw]Washing Machine Is Introduced, Electric (1910) [kw]Machine Is Introduced, Electric Washing (1910) Inventions;electric washing machine Washing machine, electric Household appliances;electric washing machines [g]United States;1910: Electric Washing Machine Is Introduced[02520] [c]Science and technology;1910: Electric Washing Machine Is Introduced[02520] [c]Inventions;1910: Electric Washing Machine Is Introduced[02520] Woodrow, O. B. Fisher, Alva J. Snyder, Howard

In the nineteenth century, laundering clothing became more arduous with the greater use of cotton fabrics that resulted from the expansion of the textile industry. In addition, the invention and industrial application of the sewing machine resulted in the mass production of inexpensive ready-to-wear cotton clothing. With more clothing, more washing was necessary.

One advancement in dealing with laundry was the hand-operated washing machine. The first American patent for such a machine was issued in 1805. By 1857, more than 140 patents had been issued, and by 1880, between 4,000 and 5,000 patents had been granted. Although most of the devices patented were never produced, they are evidence of the desire to find a mechanical means to relieve the burden of washing clothes. Nearly all of the early types prior to the Civil War were based on the principle of rubbing the clothes against a washboard. One of these, patented in 1846, employed a swinging curved, inverted T-shaped piece that passed over clothes placed on a curved bed of rollers. It must have worked fairly well—this basic model resembles machines advertised in an early twentieth century Sears, Roebuck catalog as the “Quick and Easy Washer” and in a 1927 Montgomery Ward catalog as “Our Famous Old Faithful.”

Washing machines based on the rubbing principle had two limitations: They could wash only one item at a time, and the constant rubbing was hard on clothes. A major conceptual breakthrough took place when designers moved away from the rubbing principle and began to design machines that cleaned by forcing water through a number of pieces of clothing at the same time. Electric washing machines eventually used five different designs to create the washing action needed to force water through fabric: suction, oscillating tub, dolly, horizontal rotary cylinder, and underwater agitator. All of these designs were developed in the nineteenth century for hand-operated machines.

Alva J. Fisher’s “Thor” electric washing machine, patented in 1910.


An early suction machine utilized a plunger fastened to a fulcrum that was attached to a washing tub. When a person raised one end of the handle, a plunger at the other end dropped into the tub, forcing water through the clothes. Later, electric machines were made with two to four suction cups, similar to plungers, attached to arms that went up and down and rotated on a vertical shaft. The cups pushed the water through the clothes on the downstroke and then sucked the water through the clothes on the upstroke. Another hand-operated washing machine used oscillating action by rocking a tub on a frame. The rocking action threw water through the clothes and then the clothes through the water. An electric motor was later substituted for the hand lever that rocked the tub. A third hand-operated washing machine was the dolly type. The dolly, which looked like an inverted three-legged milking stool, was attached to the inside of the tub cover and turned by a two-handled lever on the top of the enclosed tub. Clothes were washed by being pulled through the hot, soapy water in a tub with corrugated sides that increased agitation. The dolly type was the most popular of the manually operated machines and the first to be adapted for electric power.

The hand-operated machines that would later dominate the market as electric machines were the horizontal rotary cylinder and the underwater agitator types. In 1851, James King patented a machine that utilized two concentric half-full cylinders. Water in the outer cylinder was heated by a fire beneath it, and a hand crank turned the perforated inner cylinder that contained clothing and soap. The inner-ribbed design of the rotating cylinder raised the clothes as the cylinder turned. Once the clothes reached the top of the cylinder, they dropped down into the soapy water. The rotary motion and dropping action created the agitation by which the clothing was washed. An important advance took place in 1863, when Hamilton Smith patented a belt-driven reciprocating revolving drum, thereby demonstrating the importance of reversible action in washing machines.

The first underwater agitator-type machine was patented in 1869. In this machine, four blades at the bottom of the tub were attached to a central vertical shaft, which was turned by a hand crank on the outside. The agitation created by the blades washed the clothes by driving the water through the fabric. Of the five types of hand-operated washing machines that were modified for electric power, the underwater agitator type was the last to be successfully marketed as an electric machine. It was not until 1922, when Howard Snyder of the Maytag Company Maytag Company developed an underwater agitator with reversible motion, that this type of machine was able to compete with the other electric machines. Reversible action was central to the machine’s function. If the blades in this machine had turned in only one direction, clothes would soon be wrapped around the blades and cleansing agitation would be significantly reduced.

Until the nineteenth century, getting water out of clothing required hand wringing. As was true of hand-operated washing machines, the development of hand-operated wringing machines provided the basic designs later used in electric machines. The term “wringer” was first used to refer to an 1847 device that used a hand crank to twist wet clothes that were placed in a sack suspended between two posts. Later, the term was used in reference to the two-roller innovation marketed in 1861 that became the basic model for motor-powered machines. This innovation featured two adjustable parallel rollers, one above the other. Water was extracted as the clothing was pressed between the rollers, one of which was turned by hand crank while the other turned freely. In the twentieth century, motors underneath washing tubs were connected by belts to the wringer apparatus.

The basic wringer design was completed in 1910, when a patent was issued for a reversible, swinging wringer. Reversible rollers allowed the operator to correct improper loading and to withdraw clothes that had wrapped around one of the rollers. The swinging wringer allowed the operator to move the wringer so that it could be over the wash tub, over the rinse tub, or out of the way when either was being loaded. In the twentieth century, motor-powered machines would also extract water by the centrifugal force of rapid spinning. Like other developments in washing machines, this one preceded the application of electricity. A machine patented in 1873 featured an inner clothing basket that was made to spin very rapidly by the use of a hand crank. Unfortunately, turning the crank fast enough to get sufficiently rapid spinning action required a great deal of manual labor.

It was not until about 1900 that hand-operated washing machines began to replace washboards in American homes. By 1905, washing machines were being advertised that were operated by other than hand power. Small gasoline engines—used at that time for a variety of purposes—were being used to power washing machines. They were popular in homes that did not have electricity. Washing machines powered by water motors were advertised for homes with sufficient water pressure. For those homes wired for electricity, an electric washing machine was soon available.

Claims concerning the development of the first electric washing machine were made by O. B. Woodrow, who founded the Automatic Electric Washer Company, Automatic Electric Washer Company and by Alva J. Fisher, who developed the Thor electric washing machine for the Hurley Machine Company. Hurley Machine Company Both Woodrow and Fisher made their innovations in 1907 by adapting electric power to modified hand-operated, dolly-type washing machines. As only 8 percent of American homes were wired for electricity in 1907, the early machines were advertised as adaptable to electric or gasoline power and could be operated manually if the power source failed. Soon, electric power was being applied to machines of rotary cylinder, oscillating, and suction designs. Separate belts were attached to wringers so that they could be operated by electric power. In 1910, a number of companies, including Woodrow’s Automatic Electric Washer Company, introduced washing machines with attached wringers that could be operated by electricity. Maytag’s 1911 electric washing machine, developed by Snyder, featured the Maytag swinging wringer.


By 1907, the year electricity was first adapted to washing machines, some American homes were already using electric power to operate fans, ranges, coffee percolators, and sewing machines. As more and more homes were wired for electricity, more and more families bought electric appliances, including washing machines. By 1920, nearly 35 percent of American residences were wired for electricity; by 1941, nearly 80 percent were wired. By 1941, a majority of American homes had electric washing machines; by 1958, the proportion had risen to an estimated 90 percent.

The growth of electric household appliances, especially washing machines, is directly related to the decline in the numbers of domestic servants Domestic servants (U.S.) in the United States. In 1910, some 1.83 million domestic servants were employed in American homes, of whom 520,000 were laundresses. With immigration down as a result of World War I and new employment opportunities opening for women, by 1920 the number of domestic servants had declined to 1.4 million, of whom 385,000 were laundresses. This indicates that the development of the electric washing machine in this decade was, in part, a response to a decline in servants, especially laundresses. Although conditions changed in the 1920’s, and by 1930 the number of domestic servants increased to 2 million, the number of laundresses actually declined. Rather than easing the work of laundresses with technology, American families replaced their laundresses with washing machines.

Commercial laundries Laundries, commercial were also affected by the growth of electric washing machines. Commercial laundries used steam and pioneered the development of rotary washing and spin drying. At the end of the nineteenth century, laundries were operating in every major city and were utilized by people of all incomes. Observers have noted that just as spinning, weaving, and baking had once been done in the home but were eventually taken over by commercial establishments, laundry work had begun its move out of the home. Commercial laundry business grew impressively, doubling total receipts each decade, until the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Many Americans, responding to intense advertising by manufacturers, purchased electric washing machines in the belief that the overall cost of owning a machine would be lower than using a commercial laundry service. Although the commercial laundry industry grew after World War II, its business centered more and more on institutional laundry rather than residential laundry, which they had lost to the home washing machine.

The return of residential laundry to the home is the only example of a household task that began to move out of the home and then returned. This occurred in part because of technological developments. Each advance—electric machines over hand-powered machines, spin drying and rotary driers over wringers—meant that the operator no longer had to give constant attention to each segment of the laundering process. Bendix’s introduction of automatic washers in 1937 meant that washing machines could change phases without any action on the part of the operator. Some scholars have argued that the return of laundry to the home was also the product of marketing strategies that developed the image of the American woman as someone who is in the home, operating her appliances. Inventions;electric washing machine Washing machine, electric Household appliances;electric washing machines

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Edith. Mechanical Devices in the Home. Peoria, Ill.: Manual Arts Press, 1922. Although dated, provides an interesting look at the kinds of electric washing machines that were expected to be industry leaders at the time. Includes chapters on laundry equipment, wringers, and water motors that describe how these technologies actually worked.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cowan, Ruth S. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983. Important study of the relationship between household technologies and housework shows how “labor-saving” devices may actually reorganize the work process and increase the amount of labor involved in housework. Examines why alternative approaches to housework, such as commercial laundries and cooperative kitchens, have failed in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Caroline. A Woman’s Work Is Never Done: A History of Housework in the British Isles, 1650-1950. London: Chatto & Windus, 1983. Includes a chapter on laundry that presents an excellent survey of the history of clothes washing in England since 1650. Particularly useful for an understanding of why England lagged behind the United States in adopting electric washing machines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Du Vall, Nell. Domestic Technology: A Chronology of Developments. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Survey of developments in domestic technologies is helpful for placing most of the major innovations in washing machines, irons, and laundry aids in context. Unfortunately, provides only very brief descriptions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giedion, Sigfried. Mechanization Takes Command. 1948. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. Fascinating volume places the development of the washing machine within the overall development of mechanization in the nineteenth century. Brief discussion of the washing machine includes some of the most insightful comments written on the topic. Clearly shows how agitator and cylinder washers of the twentieth century were based on concepts developed in the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horsfield, Margaret. Biting the Dust: The Joys of Housework. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Entertaining look at housework examines the topic from social, historical, and literary perspectives. Chapter 9, titled “Improvement and Irony,” briefly discusses the introduction of the washing machine in the context of supposedly labor-saving innovations. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katzman, David M. Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Impressive survey of domestic service in the United States between 1880 and 1930 describes changing patterns of service in various parts of the United States during this period, when the electric washing machine was being introduced.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, Una A. The Illustrated History of the Housewife, 1650-1950. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999. Uses illustrations and many primary materials to address how the role of housewife changed during the three hundred years up to the mid-twentieth century. Discusses the labor of laundry in chapter 7. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strasser, Susan. “Blue Monday.” In Never Done: A History of American Housework. 1982. Reprint. New York: Owl Books, 2000. Describes the arduous nature of laundry work in the nineteenth century and how American women sought relief through the use of laundresses, commercial and cooperative laundries, and electric washing machines. Includes excellent illustrations that capture the demanding nature of laundry work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swisher, Jacob. “The Evolution of Wash Day.” Iowa Journal of History and Politics 38 (January, 1940): 3-49. Historical survey of innovations in washing machines, wringers, irons, and commercial laundries focuses primarily on developments in Iowa, where many early washing machine companies were located.

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Categories: History