The one name that immediately comes to mind when there is a discussion about washing clothes in the early days is Maytag. Through the years there were many, many attempts to mechanize the home laundry process, but it wasn’t until the second decade of the 1900s that one washing machine basically became the standard.
In 1924, one of every five washing machines sold in the U.S. was the square aluminum Maytag with its revolutionary vaned agitator and powered wringer.
There are probably hundreds of people who know more about early Maytag washing machines than I do. However, only a few have spent more time actually using one. Raised in a family with two older brothers, we “youngsters” were expected to step in and do jobs as soon as we were old enough. We often complained we were the only boys in our small town with dishpan hands. We took our turns in front of the sink as soon as we were tall enough to see over it while standing on a stool made specially for that purpose.
You have to be at least 50 years old to know that Monday was washday. Ask younger people what Mondays were special for and they will look at you with blank stares. Every Monday, the washing machine and two galvanized washing tubs took center stage in our kitchen. All were filled with water and the weekly laundry process commenced, aided by reluctant small male helpers.
Old Maytag still on the job in the 1980s
When my parents got married in the 1930s, they bought a white porcelain Kenmore washer. By the time I came along, that had worn out and my mother reverted to the square Maytag washer that had been used on the farm where she grew up. Originally it had a gasoline engine (electricity had not yet arrived on the farm). It was later converted to an electric engine so it could be used in the kitchen instead of outside on the porch, where it was originally used. (If there is a guard over the drive belt, it was manufactured with an electric engine. If the drive belt is exposed – like on ours – it had been converted from the original gasoline engine.)
Initially, as the smallest kid, I couldn’t reach the clothesline, so one of my jobs was to carry the heavy, wet clothes into the backyard where my older brothers pinned them up. When dry, they would be piled so high on me that I could barely see where I was headed on my return to the house. By then, of course, the tubs had been dumped and the Maytag washer drained by lowering the hose that hung on the side into a bucket.
Each of my brothers and I were weekly Maytag assistants for about a decade before we left home. Mom was so attached to that old Maytag that she used it into the 1980s. After extolling the value of a dryer during the winter months, we eventually convinced her to use an automatic washer and dryer. To her, nothing smelled sweeter than clean clothes dried on a clothesline.
Improved technology arrives in the 1930s
Other than hers, those old Maytags were long gone by the 1950s when automatic washers came into vogue. Where did they all go? Hundreds of thousands were made but they have since disappeared. In later years, one might occasionally be seen in a service station (remember those?) where attendants used the wringer to squeeze water out of the chamois used to clean windshields. When self-serve gas stations became common, anything with a wringer represented a danger to the customers, so you won’t see an old Maytag anywhere close.
The modern shiny white manual washing machines that became available in the 1930s had features that were a major improvement over the old square Maytags. Foremost was the wringer safety release that took the pressure off with just a tap of the hand. Unfortunately, before that was developed, a person’s hand could become entangled with an article of clothing and be pulled into the wringer. A woman in our town had a mangled, unusable arm following such an event. Having seen her, my brothers and I were convinced that not only were we somewhat close to being laundry slave labor but our lives were endangered, as well.
The other advanced feature was the water pump. Old Maytags required the used water to be drained into a bucket which had to carried outside or hoisted up to be poured into the kitchen sink. (An article I read recently suggested that some families put the used wash water to work again, using it to scrub the seat and floor of the family outhouse.) In newer models, the drain hose was hooked on to the edge of the sink and the water was pumped up and into the drain. That may not seem noteworthy but it decreased the washday effort considerably.
Final act: yard art
Probably the last stand for old Maytags was as yard planters. With the passage of time, they are now considered attractive as primitives or antiques. When filled with dirt, quite a large planter is instantly available for flowers. When I tried to find an old Maytag to display in my small private museum, none could be found and inquiries were met with responses that indicated such an item had never been heard of.
Eventually one was located that had spent its recent existence as a yard planter. It had been full of dirt, the agitator was missing and the legs, with wooden casters on each one, had been imbedded in the owner’s lawn so long it was almost impossible to free them so the machine could be moved. Money had to be exchanged to rescue the machine from weathering away to nothing.
Since then, I have found several others, partially complete, at an abandoned farm. The rapid growth in size of today’s farms means many small family farmsteads are unoccupied but still basically intact. It is a wonder the old washers still exist because in recent times sky-high scrap prices were paid for the aluminum they are mostly made of.
Every part put to use
The old-style machines have mostly disappeared but one part has lived on. While growing up, I often went camping with my parents and their friends. Of course, every family had camping equipment unique to their needs. Being a kid, I just ran around and had a good time wading in the creek or climbing the nearby mountains.
Food preparation was done by someone else. I did my part by eating everything in sight. Every breakfast of bacon and eggs was prepared on a large griddle over the campfire. That griddle was the lid off an old Maytag washing machine. It was perfect for cooking because it was a large, flat piece of aluminum. Who would have thought that Maytag made both washing machines and outstanding camping equipment? FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.