Reinterpreting the Washing Machine Industry in Nineteenth Cetury America

Orville R Butler

Historians have traditionallyportrayed washing machines as a late nineteenth century phenomenon when industrialized factories like Blackstone, Manufacturing and Benbow Brammer began large scale production of washing machines after around in the mid to late 1870s.  According to this history the washing machine industry took off in the early twentieth century with the development of electrical power washing machines. Prior to this late nineteenth century development according to this history cothes were washed on rocks, or scrubbed on a scrubboard.

Surveys of about 50,000 newspaper pages from 1790 to 1900 and searches for washing machine and clothes washer in the Library of Congress newspaper archive, newspaper archive.com and GeneologyBank.com show that an active washing machine industry existed in America as early as 1800.  That during the nineteenth century more than 850 people/companies manufactured washing machines and that washing machines played crucial roles in American life blamed by southerners as one factor causing the Civil War, offered by many of the same southerners as a solution to the servant problem after the war, and as a solution to the Chinese question in the west.  Washing machines or rather washing machine patent right scams between 1870 and 1900 were blamed by many as a substantial factor in the farm debt crisis.

By 1810 washing machine manufacturers had settled on their major advertising points and marketing practices that would serve them through the 19th century.  Between 1800 and 1850 washing machines received more than 300 patents and more than 52 manufacturers, a few manufacturing between 10,000 and 50,000 a year.  The War appears to have halted washing machine manufacturing in the South for the duration but only slowed in in the North where the focus of manufacturing moved to California.  After the War Washing machines were temporrily seen as a way to control former slave washer women but preferably machines of Southern manufacture. Still by 1890 southern manufacture appears to have largely disappeared while Northern and Western manufacture boomed.  At least 350 washing machine manufacturers have been documented for at least brief periods between 1870 and 1900.  More claimed to produce selling instead patent rights to produce for which significant numbers of farmers were duped into mortgaging their farms to purchase the right to manufature and sell washing machines.  This paper summerizes the development of an industry that thrived throughout the nineteenth century.