Washing machines are one of those things that we take entirely for granted unless – heaven forbid – we have to manage without one! Can you imagine having to wash clothes, towels and bed linen by hand? Of course, for many centuries of civilisation that’s what people had to do, and indeed continue to do in some parts of the world today.

Rockin’ the laundry

Early civilisations generally made do with a river and a few rocks, and garments were usually pounded by or over rocks, scrubbed with sand or small stones, and manipulated with wooden tools or underfoot. It took a lot of time and effort, and many garments would have remained unwashed a lot of the time.

Roman ingenuity

It took the Romans to make washing clothes a much bigger and grander affair. The Romans built public laundries called ‘fulleries’ where garments were washed, whitened, re-dyed and pressed by the ‘fuller’, or laundryman. Clothes were washed in stone bowls with clay and ammoniated water and dried by being hung on frames, then pressed flat by being fed through a large press turned by cranks. The ammonia in the ammoniated water came from urine collected from public urinals. It may sound disgusting, but apparently, it worked, and urine was used for stain removal in Medieval Europe as well. Combinations of animal fats and various types of ashes were also used as cleaning products.

Early washing machines

Laundry work continued to be hard manual labour throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, although at least soap that is more similar to the product we know became available during the 1800s. Washing machines of various types were developed around this time too, and these contraptions were powered by hand-cranks or steam. The first electric-powered washing machine, the Thor, was produced in 1908 and was a commercial washer sold by the Hurley Machine Company of Chicago. It wasn’t until the post-war period of the 1950s that automatic washing machines become more widely available in domestic homes.

Laundromat popularity

Even though it took many years for households to have their own washing machines, at least laundromats had been invented in the meantime. The first laundromat was known as a Wash-a-teria and was opened in Texas, USA, in 1934. Laundromats became extremely popular in the US and were soon available all over the country, allowing families the luxury of using washing machines, which would have otherwise been unavailable to them.

While washing machines are everyday items these days, laundromats provide a valuable service, particularly with the increase in high-density housing where space can be in short supply.