Chances are, when you think of the history of laundry, what springs to mind is how you toiled over which machine set to purchase or that one time the pile grew into an actual sea of shirts flooding your bathroom floor because you were too stretched for time one week. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
In fact, history is filled with fascinating tidbits about the long-lived process of dealing with dirty clothes, dating back to when our ancient ancestors used to smash their threads against river rocks just to air out their grimy grievances.
1. For starters, early sea voyagers used to wash their wearable wares by throwing ‘em in a tethered bag and tossing them overboard to drag behind their ships.
Hey, gotta give the guys credit for making use of the most abundant resource they had at their disposal during all those long journeys, right?
2. And clothing lines were used as a sneaky signalling device during the Revolutionary War.
George Washington was known as the “spymaster” for good reason. Those loyal to him formed the Culper Spy Ring and would tip off other members of the group about their latest overheard intel by arranging their clotheslines in such ways as to communicate in code.
3. Before the 1800s, people wore the same things for a week and soaked their clothes in ashes and urine as part of a lye mixture.
The Middle Ages were not for the faint of heart.
4. In Ancient Rome, there used to be an entire job description devoted to collecting urine, heating it up with water, and stomp on soaked clothes.
Yes, urine again. And this was mostly men’s work.
5. In 19th Century Britain, Mondays were typically reserved for the big weekly wash.
Sud-free Saturdays don't sound half bad, come to think of it.
6. Ironing with metal was a technique first introduced by the Chinese a thousand years ago.
Meanwhile, the early English used to used glass smoothers to fight wrinkles.
7. Soapmaking dates all the way back to 2800 B.C.
Ancient artifacts show that our prehistoric pals were rendering their own forms of soap with ashes and fats.
8. The first washing machine was invented in 1782 by H. Sidgier of Great Britain.
He designed a rod cage that could crank and is largely credited with coining the first-ever laundry machine. It would later be followed up by a string of inventions to get us where we are now -- including James King’s 1851 invention of a hand-powered drum machine, then William Blackstone’s creation of the first at-home machine as a birthday gift for his wife.
9. The first mass-marketed washing machine in the U.S. was called the Thor.
It was produced by The Hurley Machine Company in 1908 and was made of wood and chains.
10. The first ironing board was patented in 1858.
New Yorkers William Vanderburg and James Harvey created was then called the ironing table.
11. An old school washing machine used to use close to 50 gallons of water per wash.
12. Disney World employees used to have to wear company-issued underwear that was shared within the laundry system.
In 2001, a deal was signed to give workers their own individual undergarments to take home and was after a major outbreak of lice and scabies from all the skivvies sharing.
13. Astronauts have long incinerated their dirty drawers in the Earth’s atmosphere.
But NASA hopes to use soiled laundry to feed plants in the future.
14. World War II submariners had to be strategic about sleep arrangements because laundry machines weren’t an option.
Uniforms were stowed under mattresses, which were also zipped up in plastic and turned over and inside outwards to make quadruple, pseudo-sanitary use of the items.
15. Detergent was first manufactured in 1916 as a result of soap shortage during WWI in Germany.
… but it wasn’t sold in homes ‘til the 1930s.
16. The cost of an electric washer in the 1920s was $81.50.
17. The dryer wasn’t a household item until the 1960s because they were too cost prohibitive.
In the ‘50s they cost about $1,600 in modern money terms and only about 10% of households had one. Compare that to the 78% of households that have one nowadays, at the comparatively bargain average price of around $370.