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Laundry Machines

January 11, 2005

A public radio commentary

The reason we stand in our basements and do laundry is a complex mix of scientific facts, technological innovation, and worry about class and status. It began with a scientific understanding of germs.

In the eighteenth century frequent bathing was thought to be a threat to health, and the tub was approached with great caution. Most people held a middle ages belief that wetting the skin left one highly susceptible to disease. Toward the end of the 19th century, science linked microorganisms and disease. This led to the belief that that dirt, and thus disease, could be lurking even where it could not be seen or smelled. This was intensified when people recognized the connection between dirt and skin diseases, for example, ringworm. So, after having avoided bathing and frequently changing clothes, people became voracious consumers of cleanliness during the nineteenth century. Cleanliness became both a health issue and a way to distinguish oneself from the laboring classes. A clean, white starched and ironed shirt came to represent these new-found values. It also preserved an important illusion for the middle class: It hid the fact that one worked for a living.

So, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, a series of industrial laundries rose to meet this need for cleanliness. At these laundries a person dropped off their clothes, then picked up the clean bundle a day or two later. These industrial laundries would have thrived, but the idea of germs backfired. Notions of cleanliness contributed to prejudice against people - like laundresses - judged inherently unclean because of race, culture, class or ethnicity. The middle class now feared having other people touch their clothes.

This gave impetus to personal washing machines. They would never have appeared, except for two other revolutions - one technological, the other economic.

First, a reliable electrical grid was strung across American; this provided cheap energy to run the motors of washing machines, and second, the installment plan appear. This allowed the middle class the means to buy the machines. The new American Standard of Living was bought on the installment plan. At the outbreak of World War II, the major appliances sold by installment included radios and phonographs, refrigerators, stoves, vacuum cleaners and, of course, washing machines.

If you think washing machines too arcane a way to talk about technological progress - compared especially to wonders like jet plans, and rockets, and cell phones - keep in mind that at one point the world's two superpowers thought them vital.

Recall the 1959 "kitchen debate" between Russian Leader Nikita Khrushchev and American vice-president Richard Nixon. It revolved around which cold war power was better able to "liberate" women from domestic tasks through appliances.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises