Lee Maxwell doesn't own every antique washing machine ever made. It just seems that way.
Lee has herded an orderly procession of more than 500 “revived” antique washers into two large buildings at his rural Colorado home. Another 225 – not yet restored – fill every corner of a nearby barn. The collection, which focuses on the first 35 years of this century, also includes everything from washboards to advertising materials, salesman's samples to signage, all housed in 12,000 square feet of buildings. Does Lee ever have the sense that things have gotten out of hand?
“Oh, yes,” he says with mock gravity. “But it’s too late now.” There are no annual shows or swap meets for collectors of antique washing machines. If there were, the gathering could be held at a kitchen table. Lee says he knows of just three “serious” collectors (those who have more than 50 pieces in their collections).
“There’s virtually no collectors of washing machines,” he says. “People have just passed these by.”
The utilitarian washing machine, he speculates, simply can’t compete with the appeal of vintage automobiles, tractors, stationary engines and gas pumps. And he may be right: we’ve all seen collectors who get misty-eyed just talking about their first Model T or the first Deere Dad bought new. But when was the last time you saw anyone, of any age, wax nostalgic over Mom’s old washer?
Lee’s collection started, as do all such ventures, innocently enough. For years, he and his wife furnished their home with antique furniture and primitives. When her aunt gave the couple an old hand-operated washer that she had received years earlier as a bride, the couple regarded it as a novelty.
“It’s like anything else a person collects,” Lee muses. “Crazy things ... it gets in your blood.”
Women today, accustomed to automatic washers housed in sterile metal boxes, would be mystified by the machines their grandmothers used each week. In the first place, early washers were intensely interactive. The only automatic feature was back strain. Even those powered by electricity or stationary engines required, at the very least, the operator’s presence, unlike the washer of today, which is loaded, activated and abandoned. And in the old days, most homes had no laundry room: washers typically were set up on a porch, sometimes on a line shaft also powering a cream separator and butter churn. Imagine working at a sloshing, churning tub on the back porch — in January.
“They didn’t wash nearly as much as we do today,” Lee says.
But just as significantly, washers of yesterday were, in a word, dangerous.
Lee tells the story of a visitor to his museum. As he explained the danger of the old washers, a woman in the group leaned over and pointed to a 2-inch scar on the top of her head. When she was a young girl, she said, she’d been helping her mother with the laundry when one of her braids got caught in the wringer, effectively scalping her.
“They’re pieces of machinery,” Lee stresses. “They require oil. They have open gears. They’re terrifically dangerous. There were all kinds of fingers lost in washer accidents.”
The potential market for washers did not go unnoticed. In the early years of this century, more than 1,300 U.S. companies manufactured washing machines. Nearly every manufacturer had an idea for a “better mousetrap,” and, like the fabled snowflake, no two were alike. Washers were made of white cedar, cypress and copper; cast iron, pot metal, steel, aluminum. Some looked like tubs; others like ovens, or spheres, or churns.
The mechanics, too, differed.
Some had what can best be described as a “milk stool” agitator under the top lid. Early agitators were designed to move the water through the clothes, rather than the clothes through the water. Others had the same arrangement, but on the bottom of the tub.
Some washers were on rockers; others had oscillating tubs. There were suction washers, drum-type washers, belt-driven washers, tumble washers, propeller-agitators, extractors, spinners, and “clam shell wringer” washers which worked in conjunction with an air compressor.
Showing its versatility, the latter model was also used in at least one instance to extract juice from wine grapes. A handful of manufacturers attempted to convert the washer into a multi-function home appliance. Select models were enhanced with optional attachments: butter churns, fruit and vegetable canners, meat grinders.
“I never cease to be amazed by what they made,” Lee says.
Early marketers were keenly aware of the toil of washday. Ads for the Crystal Electric Washer and Wringer pledged “to lighten the burden of womankind.” The Eden washer was billed as “A monument to women’s freedom.” Imprinted on the wringer of another washer — manufactured by the company that would become the Whirlpool Corporation — are the words “Save Women’s Lives.”
“Do you love your wife? If you do, you will buy her a Rue washer.” “A Horton Washer will add Many Years to Your Life. It will save your health — keep the wrinkles out of your face — keep you youthful.” The washers themselves were named to sell: The Nevercrush (including a decal illustration picturing fingers which were “never crushed”), the Easy, the Gee Whiz, The Women’s Friend.
Laundry is, of course, a universal concern, and Lee’s collection reflects that. When he discovered four antique washing machines during a trip to Australia, Lee didn’t miss a beat.
“When we came home, we left our luggage there, put our clothes in the washers, boxed ’em up and checked them on as baggage,” he says. “Didn’t cost me a dime.”
A copper washer resembling nothing so much as an antique depth charge came from East Germany. Another German machine (the Turna-Krause) is one of the few washers to stump the retired professor of electrical engineering. Lee hasn’t been able to figure out the machine, and though it came with its original operator’s manual, the instructions are, naturally, in German.
Most of the early powered washing machines were electric, even during a period when gas engines were widely used to power other appliances.
“The first Maytag, in 1909, was electric,” Lee says. “Three years later, they put a gas engine on it. But there’s still far more electric machines than gas engine machines.”
None of his washers are particularly complex.
“They’re simple enough to figure out,” Lee says. And that, he adds, is a big part of the appeal. He enjoys dismantling each washer prior to extensive restoration. In a barn near the museum, he has created a warren-like workshop, complete with sandblasting cabinet, air compressor, acetylene torches, paint room, and an old pizza oven used to bake grease off parts. Other portions of the barn hold washers awaiting restoration, spare parts, wringers and engines.
Between hunting trips and research, restoration work and tour guide duty, Lee devotes vast amounts of time to his collection. But he still has time left over for another top priority task: selling his adult children on the merits of the antique washers.
“Having been born in 1930, I won’t have to worry about disposing of my museum until after the year 2030, and by that time, I hope to have instilled the joy of collecting washing machines into one of our descendants,” Lee says. “I have to convince one or more of them that it would look good on a resume to own over 700 washing machines. In any case, I intend that the collection stay as one.”
The latter point is easy to understand. Although each of the machines is unique in its own right, Lee’s antique washing machines fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. But his affection for the lowly washing machine does have a limit. Who, for instance, does the wash at his house?
“Not me,” Lee says with a grin. FC