The Secret History of Washing Machines
July 12, 2020 3:50 PM   Subscribe

 
My mother grew up with a wringer washer. She tells about the time she was washing Grandpa’s fishing bag and didn’t realize there was still a fish in it until in went through the wringer. Their first automatic washer agitated so hard three of the kids had to pile onto it to keep it from walking across the kitchen. They would take the lid off it in winter and use it as a sled.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:01 PM on July 12 [9 favorites]


Washing machines are one of those devices that are horribly complex because of the underlying complexity of the task they're intended to perform. Same with sewing machines. Both require distressing numbers of moving parts because both do deeply complicated things.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:06 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


My mother grew up with a wringer washer

When I was first married in the early 2000s my mother-in-law offered us a "student washer". I foolishly though "oh ok - so a small washer that should be fine for just 2 people." So when I came home I discovered what she meant by "student washer". She meant washer from when she was a student in the early 60s! Why she saved a very heavy, grease covered, barely working washer from 1962 all the way until the 2000s was beyond us. We tried using it once or twice, it leaked everywhere, took forever to wash anything and in the end we realised that just going to the laundromat was less hassle.
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:14 PM on July 12 [6 favorites]


Great link, thank you!
posted by frumiousb at 5:18 PM on July 12


THE MUSEUM IS SHUT UNTIL WE ARE THROUGH WITH THIS PESKY VIRUS

Good job, Lee.
posted by zamboni at 5:23 PM on July 12 [9 favorites]


The museum’s web site is so deliciously Web 1.0, what with table layout, probably frames, and “click here” that I’m getting all nostalgic for the web we’ve lost, before everything was monetized. Speaking of which, the Popular Mechanics link is paywalled, grr.

But wow, this museum is a labor of love and I’m heartened that someone has made a museum for a socially transformative technology that rivals, or possibly exceeds, the refrigerator. I want to visit once travel is a thing again.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:39 PM on July 12 [13 favorites]


Agitator style machines are quite complex mechanically. Front load drum machines are essentially a pump; a 2 speed, reversible motor; a fill valve and a stack of cams to control what runs when.

We take it for granted but the automatic washing machine was cornerstone technology allowing women to work outside of the home. Before the automatic washer about 1/7th of the labour of women with families was spent doing laundry.
posted by Mitheral at 5:50 PM on July 12 [12 favorites]


I 'collect' (...or maybe I simply 'amass'...) any number of things myself.

And at some point late last century I was poking around this new-ish 'internet' thingie, and I discovered the Maytag Collectors' Club.
(Note how the aesthetics of the MCC are nearly identical to Lee Maxwell's site....)

Ever since then, The MCC has been my benchmark for people who are Serious Collectors.

And I realized that one of the things the internet brings us is the knowledge that - no matter HOW Out There you are yourself, the internet WILL show you someone who is FURTHER Out There, in whatever direction you care to look.

You have 3,000 LPs? Look! here's a guy with 7,000,000.... You have a dozen Leatherman tools? Here's a guy with 400 of them, carefully arranged in his tool drawers....(etc.)

Which I guess is a long way of saying that my hat is off to a guy who rents a semi to bring home a hundred washing machines from his annual shopping trip.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:04 PM on July 12 [13 favorites]


I have a Maytag washer in the basement that came with the house when we bought it.

Best guess of the fellas (ALL fellas) the parts warehouse when I had to change a hose, was that it was from as early as the mid-fifties, as late as the mid-60s.

It's older than me. It's older than Paul Rudd. It's probably older than the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It might be older than Tang.

It still runs fine, and the fill-hose replacement is the only maintenance I've had to do in the past 13 years.

I have friends who've got through at least two, sometimes 3 new washers in the past 13 years.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 6:18 PM on July 12 [9 favorites]


My favorite washers are the old Speed Queens with agitators and very heavy duty stainless steel baskets. The last one I owned was a beautiful bright yellow, and was kind of on standby waiting for its predecessor to fail when we decided to move, but the logistics of getting it to the new house were so bad I decided to give both washers to the new tenants of the old place. I hope they enjoyed it half as much as I would have.
posted by jamjam at 6:44 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


For sjswitzer, and anyone else hitting the paywall, the PM article at the Internet Archive
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:45 PM on July 12 [6 favorites]


I got to work on a couple Maytag wringer washers several times that were gas powered and probably dated from the mid 1930s. Kinda cool. They were put together with proprietary fasteners but the client was willing to pay for us to source the wrenches so we went ahead. The first one was in our shops for months while we waited for the wrench and I could have probably sold it 100 times over even if I was charging more than a brand new unit.

My favorite washers are the old Speed Queens with agitators and very heavy duty stainless steel baskets.

They were relatively poor machines but I sold lots of those for people with narrow basement access. Both the Washer and the Dryer could be taken apart and the pieces would fit through a 20" door. So it would be deliver unit to house; disassemble; take down stairs; reassemble; test.
posted by Mitheral at 8:55 PM on July 12 [8 favorites]




Speed Queen declined a lot in its later years — basically every time it was sold or acquired.

I doubt you were selling lots of the ones I like unless you've been at this a lot longer than you've let on, Mitheral, since they were made in the early 60s.
posted by jamjam at 9:56 PM on July 12


The shelter in place has made me aware once again of the wonders of laundry machines. My triplex doesn't have any washing facilities, and there's no space for even a small real washer and dryer at my place. So for years I've either done washing at friend's places or laundromats, which was obviously now out. So when I started running out of clothes, I brought a little two tub agitator spinner, just big enough for four shirts or a pair of jeans or a single sheet. And even though it's still doing 90 percent of the real work, just spending days switching things back and forth and waiting for things to dry on the indoor clotheslines is so so tedious.
posted by tavella at 11:03 PM on July 12


What a lot of people don't realize is just how much the humble home washing machine enjoys rocking to thrash metal.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:48 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


We take it for granted but the automatic washing machine was cornerstone technology allowing women to work outside of the home. Before the automatic washer about 1/7th of the labour of women with families was spent doing laundry.

One of the things that always gets me when looking at household accounts of the 19th century is just how much money even relatively wealthy households spent on laundry. As in, people who owned multiple properties and had full time servants (today a marker of enormous wealth) worried about how much their household was spent on washing.

There's a great quote from a history of domestic servants that I read last year which goes something like this (book is in a box somewhere so I'm paraphrasing heavily): "People often ask me, how many people in the past had servants and the answer is: almost everyone in one way or another, at some point in their lives. Obviously a cook in a large household didn't have a liveried footman all to themselves, but even people who were themselves in domestic service had people who spent their days doing their laundry, managing their fires, their candles, lamps, cleaning soot from their domestic spaces. Even a 12 year old boy who might have the job of cleaning all the other servant's shoes and tending the fire in the housekeeper's or valet's room might themselves expect that when they were older, others would do those things for them. Nobody has full time servants anymore because with modern technology there's nothing for them to do."
posted by atrazine at 1:57 AM on July 13 [7 favorites]


Vintage Lightburns are something of a collector's favourite here in Aus.

The company originally made garage & workshop equipment, before later branching out into various things including their very popular small household trailers and "Lightning" brand cement mixers. Their first washing machines were not only pretty distinctive (& obviously owed a fair debt to their cement mixers), but by all accounts also pretty good washers.

They produced many later models - mostly standard boring twin-tubs - but their original design is probably the most famous, not the least because they kept making them for the army until the company folded in the late 70's. The army also bought up most of the remaining production and spares at that time, so just about everyone who did National Service or went through basic training between the early 50's and late 80's would've seen one.

Here's a strangely unsatisfactory video of one in action.
posted by Pinback at 3:13 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


Nobody has full time servants anymore because with modern technology there's nothing for them to do.

In the past ten years, how many consumer goods have been brought to market which allow the average person to recover more than 5 hours a week in time that would otherwise have been spent manually doing a household chore (washing dishes, doing laundry, etc)?

Also in the past ten years, how many "disruptive" gig-economy services have been launched which individually recover less than 15 minutes a week that would otherwise have been spent doing a household task (picking up lunch, folding laundry, assembling meal-kits)

Sometimes I think we've run out of big and easy things to technology away and we're not only beating around the margins for time-saving improvements, we're also slipping back into a world where it's just easier to offload tedious household chores to someone in a lower class. I recently bought a dishwasher after having gone my entire life without one. It's wonderful, and I can only imagine what it must be like to go from having to tediously hand-wash an entire household's laundry every single week to just loading it into a machine and letting the machine do it. But beyond washing machines and dishwashers and ovens that heat up instantly and refrigerator/freezers which keep food preserved, what additional, daily life-altering technologies have been introduced? Robot vacuum cleaners?

Meanwhile, there's a whole host of services out there offering to recover a few minutes of my time in exchange for a few minutes of someone else's time.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:44 AM on July 13 [10 favorites]


I agree about the low hanging fruit. Having replaced what was a whole set of full time jobs around:
-keeping houses heated and lit (something we now take for granted but totally nontrivial)
-additional cleaning required because of burning things indoors which is significant even when you are burning expensive beeswax / whale oil / gas for light and coal for heat, not even to mention the work required if you're burning tallow and wood for that purpose.
-cleaning of clothes
-cleaning floors (vacuum cleaners)

there just isn't that much work left except for food preparation which is the one thing that we do in fact still massively outsource to human specialists. The most time consuming cleaning tasks required in my household are:
Daily
-Cleaning of kitchen after food prep. If we actually had super modern surfaces rather than oiled wood this would be much faster but it still takes very little time. 5m / day
-Loading and unloading of dishwasher. 5m / day
-Tidying of things. 10m / day

-Cleaning and drying of clothes. 5m / day
=25m / day = 2:55 hrs / week

Weekly
-Dusting and cleaning of surfaces. 45m
-Vacuuming. 30m
-Cleaning of bathrooms. 60m
-Ironing of clothes. 30m
= 2:45 / week

Total of 5:40 / week to be optimised away in a perfect world by someone. I guess if you came up with a way to remove dust from the air you could cut down on dusting and vacuuming. If I had a water softener the bathroom cleaning would be easier.

(This doesn't include cooking at about 1:30 / day for 3x meals but everyone in my household enjoys doing that. Nonetheless it is the task that has been least optimised vs its pre-modern equivalent.)
posted by atrazine at 6:50 AM on July 13


"Then there was nothing to do but scrounge a penny from the purse and put it in the gas meter on the kitchen wall. Enough gas would flow to hear water for the laundry. Out came the washboard and up went the sleeves. Late summer was the season of exhausted women with sweat running in streams down their necks and noses, dripping from tendrils of upswept hair, women bent over steaming tubs of water to scrub the grime from the tablecloths, and from the dirty white workshirts of their husbands and brothers, and from their own white aprons and their light cotton shirtwaists. Beside them, inches away, fires roared in coal stoves to heat the irons and warm the starch. Scrub. Rinse. Scrub again. Then the blueing solution, the starch, the isometric muscle strain of wringing the laundry dry. After the hot irons, a day or two later, the grime was back." - David von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:50 AM on July 13 [3 favorites]


I applaud the sentiment behind the seesaw-washer that attempted to harness the boundless play energy of children, even if it didn't work out in reality. I believe that, if the child in the apartment above me who seems to scamper about at all hours could be convinced to do so on a treadmill attached to some sort of dynamo, everyone in my building would get free electricity forever.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:00 AM on July 13 [4 favorites]


I doubt you were selling lots of the ones I like unless you've been at this a lot longer than you've let on, Mitheral, since they were made in the early 60s.

I probably wrenched my first Speed Queen with the non perforated stainless drum in the summer of '84. Speed Queen was still making them at that time and did so IIRC at least until the mid 90s when the brand was bought by Admiral (who discontinued the S/Q washer but still made the dryer). They changed to a different still hard to adjust pump somewhere along the way and they moved to thinner cabinet metal and stopped using porcelain for the front panels but otherwise still the same machine as the unit you used in the 60s.
posted by Mitheral at 9:17 AM on July 13 [2 favorites]


I guess if you came up with a way to remove dust from the air you could cut down on dusting and vacuuming.

Central air conditioning is getting closer and closer. Maybe another 20 years and super wealthy people won't have that much dust in their homes if they don't want there to be (ie: windows and doors mostly closed, no pets).
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:36 AM on July 13


All technological development involves tradeoffs. Washing machines were made possible (mainly) by electricity (there were some early gas- and steam-driven models but they never really caught on in homes); they represent a tradeoff of electrical energy for human muscle energy. This is true of most domestic labor-saving appliances from the 20th century. Human power is swapped out by machine power. People called this the "Machine Age" for a reason.

I think one of the reasons we haven't seen more advancements in labor-saving devices is that the price of energy hasn't dropped in the late 20th century / early 21st in the way it did in the early 20th century.

What we have today is a lot of "labor arbitrage" — one person's labor is swapped out for another person's. This is possible due to inequality in the labor market; the availability of low-cost labor makes it possible for lots of people to hire house-cleaners, for instance, in a way that it wasn't when the unskilled/semi-skilled labor market was tighter. But it's also because energy costs aren't low enough to push us over the next hump of automation.

E.g.: I guess if you came up with a way to remove dust from the air you could cut down on dusting and vacuuming.

You could do this today, if you like: put a HEPA air filter in each room, or get a big whole-house HEPA and run your HVAC blower all the time, and you could basically eliminate the need to dust. I've essentially run this experiment (because allergies) and a HEPA filter appropriately sized to a room really does cut down on dust. It's pretty amazing, really. But is it actually more efficient than dusting? I'm not sure—blowers in air filters take a fair amount of electricity to operate, and you really need to be running them 24/7/365 to see the benefit. It doesn't surprise me that they are not marketed as cleaning aids. With the amount of electricity you'd burn running a whole-house HEPA all the time, you could probably just hire someone to come in and dust your house every other week. Which, surprise, is what a whole lot of people (in the upper-middle suburban set) actually do. It's the rational choice given the price of energy vs. the price of labor.

If nuclear energy had developed the way people in the 1940s thought it was going to—with plutonium breeder reactors everywhere, churning out "too cheap to meter" electricity—things might have been different. Homes would probably look different, and have an entirely different level of labor-saving automation built into them, enabled by very cheap energy. You could run that whole-house HEPA all the time. You could have laminar-flow vents around baseboards constantly 'sweep' the floor with air and vacuum up dust. The draftiness could be offset by radiant-heated floors—no carpet to trap nasties.

The next step in washing machines is probably to eliminate the separate washer and dryer, integrating them into one unit and removing the need to manually move clothes from one to the other. The technology to do this already exists, it's just niche in the US (probably because the European-branded machines often don't dry to American standards). But no reason why you couldn't—again, with cheap enough energy—wash and dry in the same machine and get clothes really bone dry.

I don't really believe that there are that many insolvable problems for automation. Given the right conditions—high labor costs and low energy costs—manual tasks get automated. The solutions are often not obvious, and often require a rethinking of the task from first principles: think "sewing machine" vs. how hand sewing works, or how washing machines work vs. how hand washing worked for millenia. But the conditions have to be right for automation, and right now they are all wrong for the automation of low-skilled work.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:46 AM on July 13 [3 favorites]


The next step in washing machines is probably to eliminate the separate washer and dryer, integrating them into one unit and removing the need to manually move clothes from one to the other. The technology to do this already exists, it's just niche in the US (probably because the European-branded machines often don't dry to American standards). But no reason why you couldn't—again, with cheap enough energy—wash and dry in the same machine and get clothes really bone dry.

I'd guess the issues of floor space aren't as dire in the US vs Europe. I know people talk up Speed Queen washers and dryers but those things are tiny compared to the largest US models, which are getting bigger and bigger, and advertise on that fact (wash and dry your entire bedsetting at once!!). An enterprising company could possibly market a combined unit via putting the idea of 2 washers and dryers in the home in people's heads, but due to the dual plumbing requirements, manufacturers are unable to take advantage of doubling up without expensive home alterations. So you are stuck with 2 separate units.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:26 AM on July 13


Bone dry isn't the greatest thing? It means everything going to be full of static electricity. One of the benefits of the Miele dryer we have is that it finishes the clothes warm and ever so slightly moist -- so, no static. Since they're also warm, they finish drying in the open air in a couple minutes. (Which also means we don't have to pay to fully dry them, additional bonus. And since it's a ventless condenser dryer, we don't have to worry about duct cleaning every year or a fire hazard if we don't. Just dump out the condenser tank every load, or even set it aside as distilled water, which it essentially is.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:33 AM on July 13


I feel like doing it all at once is less efficient; with two I can wash a second load while the first one dries. And I have to disagree about dryness at least when it comes to warm, fluffy towels vs. stiff air-dried ones.

The most helpful change would be to make it easier to attach/remove the dryer vent tube, instead of wrestling with a fragile aluminum tube with the weird little ring to tighten, all crumpled behind the dryer where you have to move everything to reach it.

I would gladly pay good money for a dryer that made that easy to do.
posted by emjaybee at 12:22 PM on July 13 [2 favorites]


I don't know what your set up is emjaybee but if your dryer vents straight out the back then there is a sort of solution to your problem if you hard vent your dryer.

If you ease the entrance of the pipe that interfaces with your dryer (IE: widen the vent pipe slightly (I just rub it with the round shaft of a screw driver)) and firmly mount the pipe to the wall (Use something like plumbers tape) it is possible to push the dryer straight back onto the pipe. It takes a smidgen of practice but it's pretty easy once you get the hang of it. The dryer friction fits to the vent pipe and that combined with the nesting of the dryer inside the vent means very little lint escapes the connection and you don't need any sort of clamp. I've done hundreds of closet/alcove installations in this manner.

If you have a lot of play in your vent pipe (like for example it goes all the way to the ceiling), you can do the same thing but without attaching the vent to the wall which allows you to move the pipe around.

Dryers when at all possible should be hard vented anyways; one should use the absolute minimum amount of the flex venting as possible to make the connection. 1 foot of the flexible venting creates the same back pressure as 6-10 feet of hard venting and the corrugations gather lint more than the smooth surface of a hard vent. Converting 8' of flexible vent to a hard vent usually results in a noticeable reduction in dry time.

Don't use screws to fasten pieces of hard venting together; use aluminum tape instead.
posted by Mitheral at 12:59 PM on July 13 [2 favorites]


I feel like doing it all at once is less efficient; with two I can wash a second load while the first one dries.

The flip side is one can just do a load every day or every other day. Stick it in the washer dryer before you leave for work and the load is done when you get home and the washed but damp clothes haven't sat in the washer all day. It's a bit of a paradigm shift but it works for some people.
posted by Mitheral at 1:02 PM on July 13


It takes me, what, 18 seconds to move clothes from washer to dryer? It takes me maybe 5 to 10 minutes to fold, sort, and put away clothes. (It also takes me an average of 17 hours, of which about 25 minutes is active work, to get my kids to put their clothes away, but put that aside for now.) It's not the energy cost that forces me to do the folding, it's that the robot that folds costs $18,000. Of course, I didn't buy a flat screen TV when it cost $18,000, so maybe in 10 years I'll have a robot folding my laundry. (And it will still take 17 hours to get the kids to turn on the robot like they said they would.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:03 PM on July 13


The combo washer/dryer is a cool idea for singles or people with space limits. But for my modestly sized (4 person) family, running the "laundry train" on Saturdays is an all-day affair even with a separate washer and dryer. Some of this is due to the dryer being quite slow (and probably very energy efficient). Also in the US a lot of people go through a full set of clothes every day, two if they exercise, and three if they work, then exercise, then go out to dinner. Don't blame me ... I'm all for featureless gray smocks worn by everyone and changed twice a week, but here we are.

I also agree that there haven't been any meaningful appliance innovations in a long time (except energy use, which was federally mandated I think). In a capitalist country, the drive is less "improve durable goods so new buyers have better options" and more "convince everyone they need a new one sooner rather than later because profit". For something like a dishwasher my criteria are:

* Is it a stainless steel cube that fits under the counter?
* Does it swish soapy water around with a sprayer and then swish clean water around?
* Does it then heat up and dry things?

I mean, that's it. I only ever use the one cycle. It should be possible to build that such that it keeps working for, I dunno, 50 years? Which brings me to one last requirement:

* Is it easy to swap out broken and worn parts, such that no part costs more than say 15% of the cost of the appliance?

I ran into that with my perfectly good, less than 10-year-old dishwasher. Control board (ugh, overly complex electronics) went bad. Parts and labor to replace it cost about as much as a brand new Bosch washer. Ergo, a lightly used perfectly nice-looking washer with a bad control board went in the landfill. Booooo!!!!!!
posted by freecellwizard at 1:04 PM on July 13


I ran into that with my perfectly good, less than 10-year-old dishwasher.

Dishwashers are total garbage appliances. I don't get the engineering behind them, what makes it so hard. I too had one that wasn't that old but was never very good. Mine was actually easy to repair, but the parts were as expensive as a brand new one. So I too got a top of the line Bosch because everyone raves about them. It's ok at best.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:15 PM on July 13


Dishwashers are total garbage appliances

With clothes there's a fair bit of leeway in how you splash a fabric/water/soap soup around and still obtain acceptable results. Same with vacuums, coffee makers, even stoves and refrigerators.

But a with a dishwasher, there is no margin for error. If it is not 100% effective every time it is run, it is useless. It's no surprise they comprise the majority of sad curbside rejects.
posted by CynicalKnight at 1:26 PM on July 13


Under counter commercial dishwashers check all your boxes freecellwizard. They also cost $5000. One of the things that make residential dishwashers cheaper is they use vastly cheaper injected molded plastic or stamped metal parts. But those by their very nature aren't as durable as a block of machined stainless or brass. Also it is practically impossible to sell a dishwasher (or washing machine or dryer, or heck even microwave) with a single cycle in the residential market. 99.5% (WAG) of people use a single cycle but that isn't what sells. All the additional cycles require complexity which adds additional failure points.

If everyone was willing to spend $5000 on dishwashers then a) parts would be available for 50 years and b) the cost of repair would be a fraction of the cost of replacement so people would repair.
posted by Mitheral at 1:32 PM on July 13


Yeah ... I figured as much, Mitheral. By the way - it's great to have a profesh appliance person in here!

The multiple cycles are like the touchscreens in fridges, etc. They are attractive but not necessarily super useful. What's a bummer is that no one sells unbreakable basic stuff. It's really hard to get - heck, any durable good where you can pay extra to get better reliability instead of paying extra to get more (not that useful often) features.

Windows 12 ... 30% faster! That's it. $100. No new features. Just faster. I mean *I'd* buy that ... but no one else would :-)
posted by freecellwizard at 1:50 PM on July 13


But a with a dishwasher, there is no margin for error. If it is not 100% effective every time it is run, it is useless.

I don't understand this. My dishwasher is kind of crappy, so I always inspect the contents before putting them away, and I probably re-wash 5% of the items by hand. But I'm still doing less work than if I didn't have that dishwasher. Maybe I should be paranoid about the germs I can't see, but I'm pretty sure everything is at least getting bathed in hot water -- it's just that grease or sticky gunk sometimes doesn't come off (and occasionally one schlimazel of a glass seems to have found itself athwart the focus of a parabolic convergence of effluent, collecting insults).

We take it for granted but the automatic washing machine was cornerstone technology allowing women to work outside of the home. Before the automatic washer about 1/7th of the labour of women with families was spent doing laundry.

I may take a lot for granted, but not this. I spent a couple of years walking my (and my partner's) laundry six blocks to the laundromat and six blocks back in a blue Ikea bag. That was nothing compared to having to hand-wash it, but it was enough of a something to permanently advise me of the liberatory nature of the in-home washing machine. I do laundry for a child now too -- six or seven loads a week -- and continue to project on my washing machine all the conscious gratitude and adulation due to that modern god of the hearth.
posted by aws17576 at 2:56 PM on July 13 [6 favorites]


I have to link to the un-framed version, but the most poetic link on the site is the one for wanted machines, closely followed by "vacuum stomps."

There is an untold story in my family about my uncle getting his hand caught in the wringer in the late 1940s. It was apparently VERY BAD, and I think he had to get surgery or something because tendons got crushed and stuff. Nothing permanent, or so we'd ever notice, since we never had occasion to ask about it, and he's been a fancy skiier for the bulk of his life. :shrug:

I've been taking care of my mom during the pesky virus, which means I've had access to her laundry room, and her very nice two-year old washer and dryer are aggressively antagonistic. They work just fine, but the details are so stupid! Like membrane buttons of a hard-plastic durable variety that do not respond to touch all that well, which is their mission in life.

Moving wash to the dryer is way more of a hassle than it should be for a technology with over a century of design evolution behind it. The machines are on those plinths that every machine has to have nowadays, but the openings are still too low. You are forced to commence a back-thrashing ritual of spinning the drum by hand (the drum also does not exactly want to spin), scraping a large fistful of clothes like you're fishing a kitten out from under a car, pull them all the way out, eventually with the help of a second hand so that one sock doesn't fall on the floor, then carry it around both doors and throw it in the dryer. Return to the other side of the doors, and repeat. I just know one of these days I'm going to twist the wrong way and lay myself out for a couple weeks.
  1. Why isn't there a button to spin the drum?
  2. Why isn't there technology to unstick the clothes from the wall of the drum? (not a problem with toploaders)
  3. Why can't the doors be switched to open on the other side, like a refrigerator? The washer and drying could be just two holes next to each other, without a wall of doors between them.
  4. Why is there absolutely no ergonomics?
  5. These are fancy high-efficiency Samsung machines! With steam! They shouldn't suck for that money.
I have horrible "anticipatory buyer's remorse" that causes me to shop for too-long for anything durable, and I know that if I'm ever in a place that allows me to buy my own machines that it's going to take me years to ferret out every annoying feature I want to avoid.

Dishwashers? I was sold on dishwashers forever when I read something about how handwashing dishes with the faucet running (...) uses like 2gal/minute. They're also much less aggravating than clothes washers ergonomically, and while the Bosch a couple rooms over from where I'm sitting right now has the most inscrutable control scheme, it uses something like 8gal water at its worst, most autoclavey settings.
posted by rhizome at 6:22 PM on July 13 [3 favorites]


Our dryer is about 50 years old, stove 40, top loader washer is at least 20, and the dishwasher is 15. All still work. I think it is because they are all very basic models with mechanical timers and no fancy features. Our cottage has a gas stove and fridge from the 1930s. Survivor bias and all, but I know a lot of people who have had to replace new appliances after only a few years because a computer board fails and it is either no longer available or too expensive to replace.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:08 PM on July 13 [1 favorite]


I have grown to have a vigorous and personal hatred of membrane buttons. There is no real resource to fix anything but the entire circuit board, unlike actual physical buttons or dials.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 8:27 PM on July 13 [2 favorites]


There is a serious and slightly insane community of people who really really want to keep their sturdy old washers running forever. The comments to this article (like the good blue website) are worth reading, although the maintainer of the original washing machine it talks about definitely went above and beyond (he built his own replacement circuit board for a 30+ year old Soviet washing machine)

As pointed out in the comments, a lot of the so-called efficiency in newer washing machines is in water savings; if you divert your wastewater to a graywater system, then the massive sunk cost of manufacturing a machine that dies in 2-10 years negates all the electrical savings.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:04 PM on July 13


I love this Siberia washing machine: Jacuzzi hot tub style agitator, and then you transfer the contents by hand into the separate spin cycle. Basically the same concept as the separate wringer in older American washers, but still weird. Like an airplane with flapping wings.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:20 PM on July 13


Ooh, check out 1983's compact Riga-7, with hand-cranked wringer!

I'm in love with how compact all these Soviet (and presumably most European) models are.

I'm washing enough family laundry to appreciate our big-ass American devices, but I would also have so much more space in my home if I could hide the devices under the sink when not in use.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:26 PM on July 13


So I currently have a washer/dryer combo (Miele), and the dryer is not forced air but instead the ventless condenser, not by choice, but because I live in Europe and these places weren't built for a ventilated dryer.

I really do hate it so very much. I can only do one load at a time, no efficiency from putting one load in the washer while another is drying (oh and my dryer back in the US was amazing, cheapest on the floor at home depot, but dried a comforter in a hour with no 2nd cycle). The ventless condenser doesn't get everything really dry. It can get close, but you have to like let it air dry the steam out a bit before dropping into a basket, and depending on the thickness of the clothing, the dryer may need to be run for 3 hours to get to it a place where that is even possible (which I dont do anymore, I let it dry for about an hour and then the laundry is hung for a few hours to finish). I look forward to the day where my clothes are dryer soft again.

Re:static: that is what dryer sheets are for! Softens, gives a fresh smell, gets rid of static.
posted by LizBoBiz at 2:39 AM on July 14


What we have today is a lot of "labor arbitrage" — one person's labor is swapped out for another person's. This is possible due to inequality in the labor market; the availability of low-cost labor makes it possible for lots of people to hire house-cleaners, for instance, in a way that it wasn't when the unskilled/semi-skilled labor market was tighter. But it's also because energy costs aren't low enough to push us over the next hump of automation.

True but a lot of these innovations were invented at a time when the labour market for unskilled labour was even looser than it is now, although admittedly they really spread in the 1950s and 60s when it was very tight.

I also think part of it just that there was a broad class of things which could be relatively easily automated / mechanised and which used to take a massive amount of time which has been improved so massively that it's hard to make them better. Once you go from it being an expensive and dirty full time job to keep a house heated and lit, and a 2-3 day a week full time job to keep clothes clean to where we are now, the impetus for further improvement slows down substantially at the same time that the difficulty increases.

I have actually had a washer-dryer combo before and it was ok but it didn't really save me any time because that would require washing only thing which can go in the dryer together and the time taken to move things from washer to dryer is already very low. Sorting, folding, and ironing take much longer but are also difficult tasks to automate.
posted by atrazine at 3:34 AM on July 14


Why can't the doors be switched to open on the other side, like a refrigerator? The washer and drying could be just two holes next to each other, without a wall of doors between them.

Most dryers do have doors that can be installed on either side. Not sure about front loader washers. I'd ask why front loader washers are so prone to smelling bad, when we have had drains for who knows how long. How do you mess that up?


I have grown to have a vigorous and personal hatred of membrane buttons.
On my new dryer, you have to hold the membrane button for 3 seconds to start it, but the actual part of the button you hold to start it is not the START Triangle. So you spend about 6 seconds moving your finger around to find the start button to start the countdown. Whoever designed that button and that sequence was a terrible person.


My oven is super old, probably original to the house (50 years old). It is so much smaller than a modern oven that it's been on the replacement cycle due to annoyance for a long time. We have to buy small specialized pans for baking and really small 'big food' like turkeys or they will not fit.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:18 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Folding laundry is a big timewaster, as mentioned up-thread, but making SW that can fold laundry is extremely hard. Even the $18k machine in one of the links is very limited in what clothes it can handle and takes and extremely long time to fold anything. Which is probably obvious (see the lack of such machines at your local retailer) but also means that the best way to fight the coming robot rebellion is still throwing blankets over the robots...
posted by Harald74 at 8:19 AM on July 14 [2 favorites]


(Very useful for those of us that find it hard to procure a .50 cal anti-material rifle. I've wanted one for the robot uprising ever since I saw one in Robocop years and years ago. However, my local authorities don't agree when I put "Quell robot uprising" in the "Purpose of firearm purchase" field in the form.)
posted by Harald74 at 8:24 AM on July 14


In my experience appliances are flimsy in ways they were not 40 years ago. The basic top loader from the 60's is pretty hard to kill, on the downside it uses a lot of water. In the last 20 years we have bought 6 ranges, 5 dishwashers, 4 ish washers and dryers. I am not entirely convinced that having a high efficiency appliance that becomes economically irrational to repair after a few years isn't just shifting externalized costs around and confers no benefit except the negative one of shopping and junking over the heavy weight simple machines of years ago.

I don't really believe that it would cost $5000 dollars to have a dishwasher that would last in perpetuity and a residential usage level. I do believe that residential appliances to day are designed to only have to last 4 years. Right off the bat the single greatest failure leading to junking is the failure of the electronics/display/input panel which always retails for 60-70 percent of a new machine.
posted by Pembquist at 10:49 AM on July 14


The whole Made in USSR YouTube channel is awesome! Not least because my Russian is nowhere near good enough to know what it is I’m watching until I actually see it do what it’s supposed to do.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:18 PM on July 14


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