I learned a lot from this short-but-sweet article in today's Financial Times about the history of the automatic clothes washing machine and the impact it had on domestic life and gender equality. I still do my own laundry, so the simple pleasures of a washing machine remain very tangible to me. The FT writes:
Tucked away under a counter in your kitchen, or gurgling in your utility room, is another machine. It has barely altered its appearance, function or performance in nearly half a century, which is perhaps why no one has thought to publish The Washing Machine - Which Really Did Change the World.The machine that spun the world around (Financial Times, June 24, 2008)
The washing machine transformed our workplaces and our families. It freed women from their most time-consuming household task, allowing them to get out and work.
Historians attribute female liberation to several causes. There was women's experience running second world war production lines, a memory that survived the 1950s return to domesticity. There was the contraceptive pill. There was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique , with its account of the suburban wife, lying beside her husband after a day of household tasks, too afraid to ask: "Is this all?"
Without the fully automatic washing machine, which appeared in suburban homes around the time of Friedan's book, it might well have been all.
In their paper "Engines of Liberation" , Jeremy Greenwood, Ananth Seshadri and Mehmet Yorukoglu recount that, after the second world war, the US Rural Electrification Authority timed a farmer's wife doing the washing by hand and then with an electric washer.
She took four hours to wash 38 pounds of laundry by hand. Doing the same load with an electric machine took 41 minutes. And this was when the machines were more primitive than today. For example, she would have had to use a separate contraption to wring the clothes.
(Image from Household magazine, April 1954, by jackie121467)