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The Maytag Company: From Farm Equipment to Washing Machines

Author Photo
By Sam Moore | Dec 28, 2009

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The Maytag hand-operated washing machine.
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The “Multi-Motor Washer with Swinging Reversible Wringer,” shown here equipped with a gasoline engine. An electric motor was available, as well as a pulley for an external engine or a line shaft.
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“Do Your Washing Under the Trees.” The outer end of the long, flexible exhaust pipe of the Maytag engine can be seen at the lower left of this 1920 ad. This feature kept the exhaust gases and odors away from the washer.
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The 1912 Maytag light delivery car, one of the motor vehicles made by the Maytag-Mason Motor Co.

Maytag didn’t start out with washing machines.

Nowadays, everyone has seen the ads featuring the bored and lonely Maytag repairman with nothing to do because Maytag washers never break down. Maytag is famous for its washing machines and, among engine collectors, for the little air-cooled gasoline engines used to power clothes washers in the days when many homes had no electricity. However, the company began with quite a different commodity in mind.

George W. Parsons was born in Virginia in 1849, but his family moved to a farm in Jasper County, Iowa, in 1853. Young George grew up on the farm and began working with threshing machinery when he was 15, starting out on a groundhog-type separator and progressing through horse-powered equipment to steam-powered machines. These machines were hand-fed, as self-feeders were as yet nonexistent.

Parsons recognized the need for a reliable and safe self-feeder. Hand-fed machines required one or two men to stand at the feeder table of the thresher, receive grain bundles from men on the bundle wagons or stacks, cut the twine band on each bundle and feed the stalks head-first into the whirling thresher cylinder that was only inches from their hands (resulting in many accidents).

By 1893, Parsons was living in Newton, Iowa, and had received his first patent for a self-feeder, assigning one-half to W.C. Bergman, also of Newton. The invention provided for a conveyor to automatically advance the bundles, reciprocating arms with knives on their outer ends to cut the twine bands, and teeth to spread the stalks evenly and carry them into the cylinder.

Maytag gets his start

Meanwhile, Frederick L. Maytag, born in 1857 to German immigrant parents, was growing up on a farm near Laurel, Iowa. When he was in his 20s, he began selling agricultural supplies. He ended up in Newton, Iowa, where, in 1882, he married Dena Bergman, sister of the guy who later owned half of George Parsons’ self-feeder patent.

In 1893, F.L. Maytag and two of his brothers-in-law, W.C. and A.H. Bergman, along with George W. Parsons, each put up $600 and started the Parsons Band Cutter & Self-Feeder Co. (named in honor of the inventor) to manufacture Parsons’ self-feeder.

Construction superintendent of the new firm, Parsons continued to make improvements to his self-feeder. In 1895 he was awarded patents for a flyball-type governor, which kept the feeder from moving until the threshing cylinder reached the proper speed for efficient threshing, and an improved friction drive for the feeder. These patents were assigned equally among Parsons and his three partners.

A changing landscape

There was one other player in this drama. David C. Ruth, Halstead, Kan., patented a self-feeder in 1894 and established the Ruth Self-Feeder Co. in Halstead. Ruth’s feeder must have been a good one, as the Parsons company bought him out and began to produce what they called the Ruth self-feeder, which became one of the company’s most popular products.

Parsons apparently became restive and resigned as superintendent in 1897, selling his interest in the firm six months later. He then organized Parsons, Rich & Co., to make a new self-feeder he’d invented (the Hawkeye). The company later built trenchers under the name of Parsons Trencher Co. until some time in the 1960s, when Koehring acquired the firm. The last Parsons trencher was built in 1984.

By 1902, Parsons Band Cutter & Self-Feeder Co. was the largest self-feeder manufacturer in the world, with the Ruth (which used a logo of the Biblical Ruth gleaning a grain field) as its most popular model. Parsons also made the Success husker-shredder (which wasn’t a complete success), a clover huller, the Buffalo hay press, and a grain grader and cleaner, as well as a special ratchet wrench to replace thresher cylinder teeth.

Washers fill void

In 1907 Maytag changed the name of the firm to the Maytag Co., and, in order to fill seasonal slack times in the farm equipment business, began to make clothes washers.

The first Maytag washer, called the “Pastime,” had a cypress tub that was corrugated on the inside. A hand-crank turned a wooden spinner inside, forcing the clothes along the corrugated tub sides. It seems pretty primitive when compared to today’s automatic washers, but it was much better than rubbing clothes by hand against a washboard or a rock. In 1911, Maytag rigged an electric motor to the washer and, since most rural homes had no electricity, a gasoline engine-driven version was made available in 1915.

Meanwhile, in 1909, F.L. Maytag bought three-fifths of the Mason (Iowa) Automobile Co., renamed the firm Maytag-Mason Motor Car Co., and moved it to Waterloo, Iowa. Maytag cars and light trucks were built for a couple of years, but Maytag abandoned the automobile business in 1912. A 12-25 Maytag tractor (with a 4-cylinder Waukesha engine) was built in about 1916, but it didn’t last long.

In about 1922, Maytag employee Howard Snyder developed a washer with an aluminum tub and an agitator that created a violent water action, rather than direct contact, to remove dirt from clothes. It was a tough sell at first, but F.L. Maytag finally convinced a few dealers to try his new washer. Housewives loved it and within 18 months of its introduction, the Maytag “Gyrofoam” was the most popular washing machine in America. Maytag soon achieved greater washer sales than the next four competitors combined.

Maytag developed several accessories designed to make his washer more versatile. With the proper attachments, the machine could be used to churn butter and grind meat, although clean-up both before and after such tasks must have been something else. Soon Maytag was making irons and carpet sweepers, and the farm equipment business was discontinued.

Sharing the wealth

F.L. Maytag became a wealthy man and was always generous with his employees. In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, he marked his 75th birthday by giving $150,000 (the equivalent of $2.4 million today) to his 1,500 employees. Each worker received $100, which was a lot of money at the time.

Maytag had two sons, Elmer Henry, Maytag company president from his father’s retirement in 1926 until 1931, and Lewis Bergman, who then took over and served until his death in 1967.

F.L. Maytag served as an Iowa state senator and was mayor of Newton. He retired to Beverly Hills where he died in 1937. The Maytag Co. was bought by the Whirlpool Corp. in 2006. Maytag appliances are still built (albeit in Mexico) and the Maytag repairman still has nothing to do. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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