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Throughout the Victorian times washing days were scarce, taking place on a monthly basis. In fact the longer your family could go between laundries, the more highly ranked you were perceived to be. This may sound like a controversial statement, but quite simply you had more clothes – a symbol of wealth and status.

In 1851, across the pond, American James King patented the first washing machine resembling todayʼs appliance. While still hand powered, Kingʼs machine used a drum but it was expensive and therefore not widely used at home. The idea didnʼt really catch on for another 20 years.

Of course Victorian Britain was not considered one of the cleanliest places. Hair teamed with lice, human waste was tossed into the streets and the River Thames was almost an open sewer breeding cholera epidemics and numerous other problems. One of these problems was The Great Stink of 1858, when during the summer months the smell of the Thames in the hot summer threatened to overwhelm London with its disease and putrid stench. Even parliament was affected by the smell of the Thames.

In 1874 William Blackstone presented his wife with a present heʼd built. The gift was a washing machine - who could ask for anything more?!? Blackstone's washing machine took the handscrubbing out of washing day even though it was still manually powered. Inside the main tub, a small, flat, pegged piece of wood was moved by the use of an outer hand-crank. This removed the dirt from clothes. Blackstoneʼs machines were mass produced and very successful bringing with them developments to the machine such as wringers and replacing the wood with metal.

The industrial revolution – washing boards, dollies and mangles

Electricity and the modern day washing machine appliance

With the world such a dirty place, one can understand laundry was not quite as important as it is nowadays but with the industrial revolution looming, change was on its way. During this period the Washing Dolly was in great use throughout the country – especially as this took place before water was piped into homes. A washing dolly is a pole with one end shaped like a small three-legged stool. It was used to agitate the clothes in the boiling water much like the spinning drum in todayʼs machines.

It is unclear who invented the electric washing machine. Alva J. Fisher is often cited as its creator however other sources state Louis Goldenberg (a Ford employee) of New Brunswick, New Jersey invented the electric washing machine around the late 1800s to early 1900s.

In 1853 the tax on soap was abolished and so it became much more commonplace and starches and blues were used to keep white items white – although this was viewed as a specialist skill. Towards the end of the 19th century mangles became popular in households for wringing and flattening clothes – reducing the need for a flat iron. The design became smaller and cheaper and so the technology was more easily incorporated into houses.

The electric washing machine has evolved in its many forms to become a staple of the modern household. Much like other kitchen appliances washing machines are vital in our daily life and have been cited as a factor in womenʼs liberation as they helped housewives escape the drudgery of household chores. Washing machines integrated into the kitchen or utility room environment highlight just how necessary washing machines are to modern society.

Washing began early in the morning to cater for the hard work and drying, taking a whole day to complete - hence the phrase “washing day”. The first washing machines

Written by Kate Owen. Courtesy of