Antique Washing Machine Collection Cleans Up
Collector puts a shine on 700 antique washing machines
The washers shown here represent roughly half of Lee Maxwell’s collection of restored machines. Those housed in this room are either hand- or foot-operated, using everything from water power to stationary engines, belt-power to treadmill. This room also houses Lee’s collection of Maytags spanning the years 1909 to 1983. Washers in an adjoining room are primarily electric, though some are run by gas engines.
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.
Page: 1 | 2
| Next >>