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A Fascinating Glimpse into the History – and Future – of Laundry

Laundry

A Fascinating Glimpse into the History - and Future - of Laundry

It may come as a shock to some of us to realize that washing machines and dryers haven't always been around. If we're honest about it, we probably take most of our modern appliances for granted. Yet in the overall span of history, the washer and dryer we depend on today are very recent developments.

Sometimes it's good to take a look back in time to appreciate what we have now.​

Let's start at the beginning.

WHAT IS LAUNDRY?

Medieval times were a period in history from around 500 to 1450, depending on which expert you ask. We tend to romanticize that time period, but it was, in fact, harsh with many challenges. Doing laundry back then had its own challenges.

For those who find etymology interesting, the medieval word lavandry comes from the old French word lave. Lave in French means to wash, which is why we also call the bathroom the lavatory.

Lavandry sounds like the flower lavender, and for a good reason. The lavender scent was used for washing, bathing, and to mask unpleasant odors, all the way into the 19th century.

The word laundry first came into the English language in 1530 and usually referred to the act and place of washing itself, versus what got washed, as we use the term today.

Through the Ages

Prior to 1800

If you have an image in your mind of women hitting clothes in a river with a rock, you're not wrong. In fact, that's still a common method in some undeveloped parts of the world today. This was called, logically enough, riverside washing.

There were also wash houses and tubs in use in some places. Along with rocks, women used special tools known by various names, such as:

  • Laundry or Washing Bats​
  • Possing-Sticks
  • Washing Beetles
  • Paddles
  • Dollies
  • Spades

Laundry bats were long and thin, much like sticks. They could be used for moving cloth around, as well as for beating out dirt. This act was called passing.

Washing bats were also squarish and could double as a scrub board. These simple wooden boards were precursors to the scrub boards you may have seen in antique stores that our great-grandmothers used.

In ancient Rome and up until the beginning of the Middle Ages, the job of laundering was a man's job, due to the strenuous nature of the work. These men were called fullones, and they were responsible for most of the city's laundry. This was the beginning of the communal nature of laundry.

When the Middle Ages arrived, washing became woman's work; hence the more familiar term "washerwoman." Washerwomen were at the bottom of the social strata, and they worked hard.

After washing and wringing out, clothing was laid outside, on a clothesline, or by the fire to dry.

Soap

For most laundry, the women would soak their clothes in lye, an interesting mixture of ashes and urine, delicately termed chamber lye. The water could be hot or cold, and the process was known as bucking. Bucking was a lengthy process of soaking the clothes during the laundry "season," which came at intervals of several weeks or months. These washing events were called the Grand or Great Wash, a concept similar to our spring cleaning.

Soap could also be made from ash lye and animal fat but was rarely used in Medieval times. By the 19th century, however, soap was fairly widespread, if still parsimoniously utilized.

1800 and Forward

Once we move into the 19th century, things get a little better, comparatively speaking. The classic washboard and tub were still in use, but there were now also plungers to stir and beat the clothes in the tub. Bars of soap had begun to be cheaply made by then but make no mistake - doing laundry still took tremendous effort.

Things didn't change much until the late 1800s. Soap was still being used sparsely in 1880; it might be used for spot treatment but was primarily mixed into hot water for the main wash. Laundry soap was usually soft and dark, now made mostly from ash lye and fat.

Soon packaged bars of soap became commercially available. To make the lather from bars of soap, the women would grate flakes from the bar and add to the wash water. Soap powder also became widely available during this time, making laundry day a little easier still.

The Washing Machine

Developments in science, commerce, and industry impacted many areas of life, including household chores such as laundry.

The first version of the modern washing machine made its appearance in the 19th century as a simple, handheld mechanism consisting of a tub base, paddles, and a handle to turn the paddles. It's not known for certain who should get the credit for it, but the names of William Blackstone, James King, and Hamilton Smith have all been put forward.

These machines came with a mangle to aid in the drying process. The mangle was another hand-operated mechanism that squeezed the water out of the cloth, eliminating the need to wring the water out by hand. This must have been a much-welcomed time, hand, and arm saver for those women!

No one knows for sure when the precursor to our modern washing machine was invented, or by whom, but it began to be advertised as early as 1904. Alva J. Fisher was credited with inventing the "Mighty Thor" electric washing machine in 1907.

These early electric washing machines had some of the same features we enjoy today, although water heaters were to be added later.

Dryers

For the most part, up until 1800 clothing was still being laid outside on the ground, on a clothesline, or by the fire to dry.

That's when M. Pochon created the first hand-cranked clothes dryer in France. He designed a ventilator which consisted of a metal drum pierced with holes into which clothes were placed and rolled over an open fire. George Sampson developed a similar device in 1892. However, everything naturally smelled like smoke.

The big leap forward in technology came in 1930 when J. Ross Moore developed the first electric clothes dryer, adding a gas version in 1936.

Popularity began to grow in the 1950s; more machines were produced and additional features added, but not much has really changed since then.

The Future of Laundry

Technology doesn't stand still. There are detergent-free washing machines and even jeans that eliminate the need for washing on the horizon. And today, you can outsource all your laundry needs, which curiously brings us back to the ancient Romans.

Rather than outsourcing your laundry or waiting on future technology, why not get the best right now?

laundry balls

Use OdorCrush Laundry Balls in your wash load to get your clothes clean and fresh while you save time and money every laundry day. No waste, no messy detergent, simple, and safe to use. We've come a long way, indeed.

The future is now!

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