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December 27: Doing the Laundry was Dangerous

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The old-fashioned wringer washing machine looks primitive by today’s standards, but at one time it was a state-of-the-art innovation. As the industrial revolution exploded, people became more and more interested in labor-saving devices. Wooden tubs equipped with a hand-powered agitator were already in use. But the wet laundry still had to be wrung out by hand. That was time consuming and labor intensive.

Ellen Eglin, an African American domestic servant, is credited with inventing the wringer washing machine. In 1888 she added a hand-powered clothes wringer to the wooden wash tub. By squeezing the water out, her invention allowed laundry to dry faster and with less work. Instead of patenting her invention, Eglin sold her idea for eighteen dollars.

Big companies jumped into the laundry market. The Maytag Corporation originally manufactured farm implements, but added a wooden tub wringer washing machine in 1907 to keep busy during slow times for implement manufacturing. In 1908, the Hurley Machine Company of Chicago introduced the first electric powered washing machine, but the wringer was still turned by hand. The Whirlpool Corporation made a further improvement by adding an electric powered wringer.

There were some unique dangers associated with this new innovation. Women sometimes got their hair or hands caught in the wringer. When the wringer was turned by hand, it was easy to reverse it, but that was more difficult when electric-powered. Some washing machines presented still another danger. These washing machines were gasoline powered, with an engine that turned the agitator and the wringer.

On this date in 1930, the Bismarck Tribune reported on an accident involving one of those gasoline powered machines. A Hazelton woman narrowly escaped serious injury when her clothing got caught in the shaft of the engine. She was thrown to the floor and was severely bruised, but was fortunate that her clothes tore off before she got pulled into the shaft.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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