Wash Day and Our Ancestors

happy day washing(1)On March 28, 1797, Nathaniel Briggs of New Hampshire, was granted a patent by the United States Patent Office for a device listed as “improvement in washing cloathes.” While Briggs is often considered the first inventor to have patented a washing machine, exact proof is difficult to establish: a Patent Office fire in 1836 destroyed many of the early patents and drawings, including that of Briggs.

To get an idea of what the Briggs machine may have looked like, there is speculation that such a machine may have been the basis for William Johnson Folsom and John Hayden’s 1805 patent: a machine with “parallel grids” used to press and squeeze clothing in a water solution. Over the subsequent decades there would be many more innovations in terms of laundry and washing machines.

So while we have no concrete documentation as to what the Briggs machine looked like, or how it may have improved the washing of “cloathes,” we do know that during the 19th century, many improvements were made to the process of laundry. Yes even in the 20th and 21st centuries, doing the “wash” is still a dreaded task, often put off until certain items are needed in order to be considered well-dressed and presentable.

How Did Your Great-Grandmother Do Laundry?
I remember hearing stories from my great-grandmother, who grew up in New York City, about how she and her sisters had to do the laundry for the family. Living in the city did not necessarily mean an easier process and it was much the same as those in the rural areas of America: you used a large wash tub with a scrub board and caustic lye soap. Add hot water, stir, wring out the clothes, rinse out the soap, repeat, etc. And drying clothes was a challenge, especially in the Lower East Side: hang them out the window (and risk dirt and pollution) or use clothes lines rigged up in the one room tenement apartment? And once dry, guess what? They had to be ironed since the days of “wash and wear” had not yet arrived!

Sounds like a lot of work, no? That’s why all the women in the household were involved because it helped speed up the process with more hands involved. As machines were added to the process, including washing machines and clothes wringers, wash day actually became more dangerous. Yes there had always been the danger of being scalded with hot water or burned by lye and other detergents, but now there were gears and levers that could trap a finger or a hand.

When it comes to doing laundry, to say that “we’ve come a long way baby” is not an exaggeration. Consider that most of us have access to modern machines that can agitate clothes at different levels, better detergents for cleaning, and dryers that can have clothes finished and ready to wear in no time. We can all thank Nathanial Briggs and subsequent inventors of washing machines and related laundry machinery for making a necessary chore so much easier to perform!

To get an idea of the evolution of Wash Day and how, in fact, ensuring clean clothes for the family was a day-long process prior to washing machines, look at Save Womens Lives: History of Washing Machines by Lee M. Maxwell. The author, an electrical engineer with a fascination for washing machines, not only gives a detailed account of the development of improvements in the mechanical process of cleaning clothes, but recounts the history of how women performed the laundry chores. Maxwell also runs the on-line Washing Machine Museum which offers images of early machines and patent information.

© 2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee
Thomas MacEnteeThomas MacEntee is a frequent guest blogger for Saving Memories Forever. He is also a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. For more information visit http://hidefgen.com.