Why did it take 250 years for washing machines to become popular?

Thursday, 2 March, 2017

Washing machine design, 1766. Image via ETH-Bibliothek

There’s nothing new about the washing machine. A patent for a device, or engine, for the “washing of cloathes”, and other purposes, such as “milling of sugar canes, pounding of minerals”, was issued in 1691.

The illustration above is taken from a book published in 1766, by Jacob Christian Schaeffer, a German pastor and professor. For their labour saving virtues, isn’t it strange then that washing machines didn’t come into wide use until almost two hundred and fifty years after their advent?

It’s not as if there was some other option hindering their uptake either. Like the humble washboard, for example. They were first patented in 1833, quite some time after the washer.

So what gives? I know there are people averse to things shiny and new, but isn’t holding off on adopting what will surely save much time and effort, taking matters a little too far? Of course, the earlier versions predated the supply of electricity, and required manual operation.

But that would only have been an imposition, if you allowed it to be. For instance, you could have recited some verse as you churned the machine through its cycle. Come on now, at least you weren’t getting your hands dirty.

Justin Fox – no, not that Justin Fox – writing for Bloomberg View, decided to investigate. He found people wanted their washing machines to be electrical, fully automatic – to hell with reciting verse – and reliable, and cheap. Then, and only then, would they ditch the washboard.

It was only with the invention of the electric washing machine by Alva Fisher in Chicago in 1907 that something dramatically better than the washboard came along, and even then it took decades more for the machines to become cheap and reliable enough to change how people cleaned their clothes (and of course in much of the world, washboards still rule). In the U.S., according to a 2013 paper by Benjamin Bridgman of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the big gains in household productivity enabled by the washing machine, dishwasher and other such devices occurred between about 1948 and 1977.

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