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The following story is reprinted with permission from the November, 1987 issue of Appliance Manufacturer, ©1987, Corcoran Communications, Inc.
Eighty years ago, the Maytag Company manufactured its first washer, the 'Pastime', to offset the seasonality of its farm machinery business. A hand-cranked dolly with four twirling wood pegs was positioned under its lid. The dolly pulled the clothes through the water and against the corrugated sides of a cypress tub.
This labor-saving invention was followed two years later by the introduction of the 'Hired Girl' wringer washer. The washer replaced hand cranking with a pulley mechanism operated by an outside power source.
'Today, we have almost 110 conception of what these primitive washers meant to the daily lives of housewives,' says Susan Martin, a Maytag spokesperson.
'They were a tremendous improvement over the washboard. But washdays still meant carrying and heating water, followed by a long series of rinsings, blueings, and bleachings. Washing clothes was one of the housewife's most exhausting chores.'
Steady Stream of Innovations
During its 80 year march to today's computer-controlled appliances, Maytag introduced many improvements to its basic washer concept.
The company's swinging reversible wringer, a 1910 industry first, simplified rinsing chores in a separate tub. Formerly stationary, the wringer could be moved to accommodate any variety of rinse-tub positions.
At one time, the company even made a meat-grinding attachment that fit over the wringer's spindle.
Maytag's 1911 electric-powered model, which eliminated the hand operation of earlier models, was followed in 1914 with the unveiling of the industry's first gasoline-powered washer.
Dubbed 'the farm woman's best friend,' the 'Multi-Motor' washer was a godsend in pre-electric rural areas. The machine's gas engine was removable and found its way onto bicycles and farm machinery. In addition, attachments were available for powering a butter churn, ice-cream freezer, and the meat-grinding equipment.
Suds and Salesmanship
SELL WASHERS IN THE 1920s
It was 1924 and 19-year-old Claire Ely was looking for a job in Minneapolis. He believed he had the initiative and tenacity required to succeed as a salesman in that depressed economy, if only he could find the right product to sell.
Ely found the Maytag Co. with its line of electric-and-gasoline-powered wringer-washing machines.
But what today would appear to be a necessity in most homes was then a luxury for families saddled with back-breaking scrubbing on a washboard.
'Husbands never had a problem with the laundry, because their wives would do it,' says Ely.
'Most times the key to selling was in plotting with housewives on how they could convince their husbands that the washer was a necessity.'
With family spending in the early 1920s averaging $ 1,434 a year, the $ 165 price tag for an electric washer and $200 for one with a gasoline-powered engine represented a hefty investment.
'Maytag's gasoline engine really catapulted us into rural markets, because very few of those homes had electricity,' says Ely.
'Up until that time, it would take days for a housewife to do her family's wash by hand. These washing machines really liberated the housewife from one of her most exhausting chores.'
Ely adds, 'I would place a washer on loan with a farm family for a week; and when I went back to pick it up, I'd find the whole countryside had heard about how wonderful our washer was.'
Like the thousands of Maytag salesmen in the 1920s, Al Murray peddled the washer house-to-house, strapping the machine on the back of his Model T Ford. He covered 100 square miles over gravel roads in Kansas to give an average of 10 free demonstrations every week.
'I would chop the wood to heat the water, wash a week's worth of clothes for a family, and even hang it on the line. It became a form of entertainment for the whole neighborhood,' says Murray.
In the 1920s, about 125 manufacturers were selling washing machines in the U.S. Maytag salesmen often used theatrics and imagination to gain attention for their product.
Roy Morris, Escanaba, Mich., would demonstrate Maytag washers at county fairs and church picnics, any place where housewives gathered.
'On Saturdays, I would strap a washer on the front of my car, start a load of laundry in it, and drive around town with it churning away,' says Morris.
'I wouldn't drive more than a block until all the bicycles in town would' be following me right back to the store to see my full demonstration.''
A few years later, Howard Snyder, Maytag's inventive head design engineer, accepted a challenge the industry called 'impossible'. He cast a square, sturdy, lightweight washer tub out of non-rusting aluminum and gave it rounded corners.
A novel cast-aluminum dolly, located in the lid, turned back and forth, washing dirt out of the clothes and into a cone-shaped tub bottom, thus preventing the recirculation of soil.
It was not uncommon to see these square-shaped, aluminum tub washers strapped to the back of Model T Fords or even on rugged mules, as Maytag salesmen made their rounds in isolated farm communities across the country.
By 1922, Snyder and his engineers had come up with another unique design that replaced the dolly under the lid with a finned agitator located in the bottom of the washer tub.
'Gyrator' blades, with their much gentler action than that of the top dolly, force water through the clothes instead of pulling clothes through the water. At this point, the 'Gyrafoam' technique became the industry standard.
This trademarked principle of forcing water through the clothes for removing dirt, now called 'agitation,' is still used in most washers today.
In 1936, Maytag developed its first tub of procelain enamel, a tough, smooth, durable surface that resisted scratches and stains.
In the 1920s and 1930s, clothes washers were manufactured only in subtle grays and greens until Maytag began producing a solid olive green machine in 1936.
Another industry first for Maytag came in 1939 with its introduction of a line of white appliances.
The first was the 'Master' washer, capable of washing 50 percent more clothes than previous models. The washer featured an improved roller water remover, a damp-drying device that minimized wrinkles.
1907: The 'Pastime,' a corrugated wooden tub made of cypress, is equipped with a hand-cranked dolly under the lid.
1914: The 'Multi-Motor' gasoline engine washer is a boon to home-makers who live on farms or in small towns without access to electric power.
1922: The 'Gyrafoam' agitator principle replaces the top dolly on the lid with an agitator on the tub's bottom.
1949: Automatic washing machine is introduced.
1909: The 'Hired Girl' washer, complete with wringer, replaces hand cranking with a pulley mechanism operated by an outside power source.
1910: Swinging reversible wringer is added to the washer for greater flexibility.
1911: Electric-powered model eliminates hand operation of earlier models.
1919: 'The washer that couldn't be built' is built. Model 70 is a one-piece, square, cast-aluminum, non-rusting tub with rounded corners.
1936: Porcelain enamel tub, with a tough, smooth, durable surface, resists scratches and stains.
1939: 'Master' washer is capable of washing 50 percent more clothes than previous models. Washer production was discontinued during World War II as Maytag turned to production of war materials.