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A Look at the Past: The History of Washing Machines


For some people, laundry may not be the most fun activity, but this home appliance’s history is fascinating. The first washing machines reported were invented in the 1850s. However, people back then have been doing laundry since they quit wearing fig leaves. Throughout the centuries, washing clothes technology has developed from rough physical labor to advanced technology.

Laundry in the Ancient Times

In ancient times, our ancestors cleaned their garments by smashing them on the top of rocks or brushing them with specific kinds of sands in rivers or streams. The ancient Romans invented a crude lye-like soap made of fat and ash from animals. During the colonial era, the most popular way of washing garments was to put them in a large cauldron with boiled water. Then, they put them on a flat board and pounding them with a paddle.


The metal washboard was not invented until around 1833. Before discovering metal washboards, this washing tool was entirely made of wood, including its uneven surface. Laundry was widely considered a communal ritual until the Civil War, particularly in places located next to springs and rivers.

The Emergence of Washing Machines

The United States was in the middle of an industrial revolution in the 18th century. As the country expanded to the West along with the growth of the economy, urban populations exploded, and the working-class came to spare their money into a number of newly invented devices to save them from the tedious work of daily chores.

Many can claim to have invented some types of manual washing machines that are designed by combining metal agitator and drum made of wood. James King and Hamilton Smith applied and secured patents for identical machines that were often cited by historians as the first modern washing devices.

But others, including the Shaker community in Pennsylvania, would enhance the fundamental technology. Until around the 1850s, the Shakers began to build and market a vast number of wooden washers specifically manufactured for small industrial scales. In 1876, one of the most notable models was exhibited at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia.

The Rise of Automatic Washers

The groundbreaking electricity work of Thomas Edison has stimulated the technological advancement of America. Until the late 18th century, industrial washing machines were powered by belts and steams, while residential devices were manually operated by hand. It all changed in the early 19th century when the first commercial automatic washers, Thor, were available.


Thor was drum-type washers with galvanized tubs that were invented by Alva J. Fisher and distributed by the Hurley Machine Company in Chicago. Thor continued to evolve in the technology of washing machines throughout the 20th century.

While Thor changed their business, other manufacturers put their eyes on the mass market, and the most notable one was Maytag, which was established in 1893. They began the production of farm machinery in Iowa. In 1907, Maytag launched its first wooden-tub washers to add to its product line and decided to get into the washing machine business.