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History comes clean: Laundry through the centuries

More than three decades ago and fresh off retiring from his career teaching electrical engineering, Lee Maxwell and his wife climbed into their new motor home and headed east toward Maine for a vacation. Halfway through Iowa, they decided to stop for lunch and came across a farm auction. An antique washing machine was up for bid. Maxwell, now 87, raised his hand and made the purchase that would chart his course for the next 30 years.

Maxwell and his wife returned from that first trip with 13 washing machines, an interest Maxwell attributes to a “mechanical fascination” with the appliances. He began scouring antique shops and auctions for more models and added a trailer to his motor home to transport his haul. His collection has since grown to more than 1,400, which Maxwell displays at Lee Maxwell’s Washing Machine Museum in Eaton, Colorado.

“They turned out to be quite odd things, and something you’d hardly ever see, even though there were plenty around,” Maxwell said during a recent phone interview. “I’d bring them home and tear them apart, clean them up and put them back together. It started in my garage. It moved to the barn and now, over the years, I’ve had to build buildings for the darn things.”

The oddball museum has become a regular stop for tour buses and people looking for a tour of Maxwell’s collection, which he books by appointment only.

After decades of collecting, it is only natural that Maxwell would become a historian both of the machines themselves and of society’s laundry habits. He has even written a book on washing machine history, “Save Women’s Lives: History of Washing Machines.”

“I’ve collected old advertisements and patents,” Maxwell said. “I’ve downloaded 23,000 patents for washing machines, dating from the 1700s to about 1960.”

Most of us are used to simply dropping the clothes in the washer, turning it on, and returning when the cycle finished. You might not even recognize many of the items as a “washer,” like the washing bat, which Maxwell says is still the most common “washing machine” in use in the world today.

Then there was the dolly stomp. “You stomp up and down on those pegs, wrap the clothes around them and drag them back and forth through the water,” Maxwell says. “They started clear back when clothes were invented and were very common tools up until the 1920s. In Europe, they were used later than that.”

There’s a chance you might recognize the “vacuum stomp,” which can still be purchased new today. They were typically used for smaller loads.

At one point in the 1800s, Maxwell says, more than a thousand companies in North America made washing machines. That’s also about the time electric machines started showing up, but customers had to purchase the electric motor separately and attach it to a manually operated machine. Around 1907, The Nineteen Hundred Corporation began shipping a machine with a motor already attached.

“That’s a historic moment in washing machine development,” Maxwell says. “Prior to that, machines were mostly hand-operated. You had some animal and water-powered machines prior to that. But this was the first time the company thought to make it a little easier to do the wash. The company, Nineteen Hundred, changed its name around 1951 to a name you probably recognize: Whirlpool.

Laundry has changed over time as well. Clothes are a lot cleaner than they used to be, and laundry—once an occasional community event in some places—is done more frequently.

“I can remember my grandfather wearing his overalls until they literally stood up,” Maxwell says. “Washing was washing. Today, we don’t really ‘wash,’ we kind of refresh. Your shirt doesn’t get that dirty.”

Laundry appliances have also changed how homes are designed. “Old houses never had a room dedicated for washing machines,” Maxwell says. “The washing was done outside, on the back porch, or more recently in the basement. It was only with the advent of the automatic washing machine, right after World War II, that folks started thinking about incorporating the washing machine into part of the kitchen, or another part of the house.”

These days, Maxwell’s mission is to preserve his collection and the museum’s legacy. “Someday, I’m going to find a home for these 1,400 washing machines,” he says. “My collection is the only comprehensive collection of washing machines there is. I need to find a home for it.”