Home washing machines a luxury before end of WWII

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After last week’s visit to Coon High School, let’s move back to the dirty clothes situation. How about washing machines in individual homes?

The country was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression that occurred during the decade prior to World War II. Washing machine production ceased during the war years due to the need to use this nation’s manufacturing resources for war materiel. Only 47 percent of all U.S. homes had washing machines by 1950.

Mother and Daddy bought a washer soon after the war was over, probably around 1946 or 1947. It came, as did most of the durable non-furniture goods in our house, from Sears, Roebuck & Co., joining such Sears items as mattresses, springs, hot water heater, dinnerware and tin cans for canning the vegetables from our garden. Its home was on our small back porch, which Daddy had enclosed and weatherproofed. He also ran hot and cold water to a faucet bib set and ran a pipe up through the floor from the wastewater system, so the washer would be able to conveniently drink freely and then relieve itself.

The washer was a great time- and labor-saver compared with washing clothes by hand, but it was a long, long way behind today’s automatic machines. Here’s how the washing process went, as well as I recall. But first, let me describe the washing machine to you.

It was an upright tub containing an agitator. The lid on top was the diameter of the tub, giving a convenient opening to put clothes in and to get them out. There was a pair of rubber-covered wringers supported above the level of the tub. I specifically remember two control devices on the washer. First, there was a gear shift lever on the outside of the tub, which was used to engage the agitator and set it in motion, and there also was a timer.

I don’t believe the timer actually controlled anything, but merely rang a bell after a set time to remind you that you had to take some action. The wringers also had mechanical devices on them to start them rotating, to adjust their tension and an emergency release in case something got caught in them.

The process began by filling the washer tub with water, using a short hose connected to the hose bib. Mother then added soap. Back then, washing machine soap was dry, in granular form, not a liquid, and I believe that it was truly soap, not detergent. (Anybody remember the “Oxydol Sparkle” jingle on the radio?) After Mother filled the washer tub, she used the transmission lever to start running the upright agitator and then added the dirty clothes to the tub.

By the way, since she’d save both the wash water and the rinse water for reuse in subsequent loads, the first load was whites and lighter colored items, with dark colors and heavily soiled clothes saved for the following loads.

When the clothes had been agitated long enough to get them clean (as judged by the operator, not as determined by a timer on contemporary machines), the agitator was stopped and the clothes were fished out of the tub and run through the wringer, whose operation squeezed most of the water out of each item. The wringer in this case is the star in the inelegant expression that is still used today but probably is little understood by younger people, “Don’t let your tit get caught in the wringer.” In actuality, fingers were the body part more likely to be eaten by the wringers.

The damp clothes were caught in a clothes basket as they came through the wringer and set aside to be rinsed in the washer.

The wash water in the washing machine was pumped out (the pump was built into the washer) into a large square galvanized wash tub, saved for reuse in washing the next load of clothes. The washer was rinsed out and refilled with clean water. The agitator was turned on and the damp clothes were put back in to be rinsed, after which they were run through the wringer again. At this time, the first load of clothes was ready for its trip to the clothesline.

The rinse water was pumped into a second washtub, to be saved for rinsing of subsequent loads, and the wash water from the first washtub was pumped back into the washer as the medium for washing the second load.

Next week: Water conservation and clotheslines.

Henry Croom is an 83-year-old former Wilsonian. He graduated from Charles L. Coon High School in 1951 and N. C. State in 1955. He lives in Scottsdale, Arizona and occasionally writes of his boyhood recollections of growing up in Wilson. This is the fourth installment of a seven-column series on “laundry,” although he does wander away from that subject in a few places. Reach him at hcroom@msn.com.