Ancient Roman Laundry

As we know, almost everything new is well forgotten old. This is particularly true in the case of ancient Roman laundry. With their well developed urban systems, Romans were the first to offer public laundry services. Fullness, the clothes washers, were in charge of washing and cleaning the garments of the Roman citizens.

​As the Romans generally wore clothes made out of wool (there was no cotton in ancient Rome) they needed frequent washing in the hot climate of Italy. How this was done has been described by Pliny and other writers but is most clearly explained by some paintings which have been found on the walls of a fullonica (laundry service) at Pompeii.

In ancient Rome, laundry was a man’s job. The clothes were first washed, which was done in tubs or vats, where they were trodden upon and stamped by the feet of the fullness. After the clothes had been washed, they were hung out to dry and were allowed to be placed in the street before the doors of the fullonica. When dry, the wool was brushed and carded to raise the nap, sometimes with the skin of a hedgehog, and sometimes with some plants of the thistle kind. The clothes were then hung on a special basket – viminea cavea, under which sulphur was placed to whiten the cloth (just imagine the odour!). Fine white earth, called semolina by Pliny, was often rubbed into the cloth to increase its whiteness.

Ancient Europe Laundry

Unlike the ancient Rome, medieval Europeans tended to rely on their own forces rather than public services when it came to laundry. Most often this was done on river banks, even if the rivers were frozen. Special tools were used for this purpose – washing bats and scrubbing boards. They were used to agitate the clothing in running water to force the dirt out and to smooth the fabric during drying. No ironing was done at that time.  After a thorough wash, the garments were laid out flat on the ground to allow the sun to do the bleaching and drying.  Clearly, such an exercise was not a weekly routine and was only done once in a while, whenever a large enough amount of dirty clothes accumulated. Finer parts such as lace collars, trimmings and fine undershirts were laundered separately and more often with less aggressive methods. 

Soap, mainly soft soap made from ash lye and animal fat, was used by washerwoman who was paid for their work. The poorest people rarely used soap in medieval times, but by the 18th-century soap was fairly widespread: sometimes kept for finer clothing and for tackling stains, not used for the whole wash. Starch and bluing were also available for better quality linen and clothing.

The First Washing Machines

Hand (or feet) laundry washing reigned for centuries until the first washing machine was designed by H. Sidgier of Great Britain in 1782. It consisted of a cage with wooden rods and a handle for turning

From this design in the late 1800s, different companies started producing hand-operated machines that used paddles or dollies. Then came the revolving drum from James King in 1851. This was shortly followed by a revolving drum with reversing action, from Hamilton-Smith in 1858.

The earliest manual washing machines imitated the motion of the human hand on the washboard, by using a lever to move one curved surface over another and rubbing clothes between two ribbed surfaces. This type of washer was first patented in the United States in 1846 and survived as late as 1927 in the Montgomery Ward catalogue. The first electric clothes washers, in which a motor rotated the tub, were introduced into America about 1900. The motor was not protected beneath the machine and water often dripped into it causing short-circuits and jolting shocks. By 1911, it was possible to buy oscillating, cylinder, domestic washing machines with sheet metal tubs mounted on angle-iron frames with perforated metal or wooden slat cylinders inside.

Beatty Brothers of Fergus, Ontario was the first company to produce an agitator washing machine. The early Beatty machines had ribbed copper tubs which were nickel or nickel-chromium plated. In the US, the first firm to adopt agitator technology was Maytag. The vertical orientation of these machines became the industry standard replacing the horizontal rotating axis of earlier machines.

Starting in the 1920s, white enamelled sheet metal replaced the copper tub and angle-iron legs. By the early 1940s, enamelled steel was used and sold as being more sanitary, easier to clean and longer-lasting than the other finishes. The sheet-metal skirt was also designed to extend below the level of the motor mount.

In the early 1920s, several Canadian machines were offered with built-in gas or electric water heaters. By the 1930s, domestic water heaters were in many homes and the washing machine heater was of little use. The addition of a motor-driven drain pump at this time moved the machine one step closer to complete automaticity.

The next development of the washing machine was the fitting of a clock timing device which allowed the machine to be set to operate for a pre-determined length of the wash cycle. Now, the operator no longer needed to constantly monitor its action.

By the early 1950s, many American manufacturers were supplying machines with a spin-dry feature to replace the wringer which removed buttons and caused accidents involving hair and hands. In 1957, GE introduced a washing machine equipped with 5 push buttons to control the wash temperature, rinse temperature, agitation speed and spin speed.

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