Machines make doing the laundry look easy

The gradual evolution of the washing machine during the last century.

By NEMO Science Museum

Washboard (1880/1920) by UnknownNEMO Science Museum

Doing the laundry was traditionally a very time consuming job. To dislodge the dirt from their clothes, people washed them in streams, pounded them, boiled them in wash boilers, or rubbed them against ribbed washboards. 

Wash pestle (1880/1920) by DWZ/DPNEMO Science Museum

Another washing device was the laundry stamper or wash tub agitator. This metal object was attached to the end of a pole, and the whole device was moved up and down like a sink plunger. In this way, you forced the soapy water through the laundry. 

Watch the clip to see how this laundry stamper works.

Washing machine advert (1920/1940) by MieleNEMO Science Museum

Primitive ‘washing machines’ existed as long ago as the 17th and 18th centuries. These were basically wooden barrels containing soapy water, which you swirled around. 

At the start of the 20th century washing machines began to be mass produced, by manufacturers such as the German company Miele.

Tub-type washing machine (1930) by MieleNEMO Science Museum

The first machines were hand powered, but these were soon followed by appliances with electric motors fitted beneath their wooden barrels. 

This Miele model dates from 1930.

Wash drum (1850/1900) by OnbekendNEMO Science Museum

It was also possible to make wash drums out of metal. The advantage of this is that it can be heated directly by a flame. An agitator mounted inside the machine swirls the laundry through the water. 

Washing machine (1913/1925) by Scando-Werke GmbHNEMO Science Museum

This German washing machine dates from 1913. It has a spherical, electrically powered metal wash drum. The water had to be pre-heated elsewhere and then poured into the machine. 

Washing machine (1932) by ElectroluxNEMO Science Museum

Some machines, like this Swedish model dating from 1932, combined an electric motor with a petrol-fuelled burner. 

Wash boiler shaker (1920/1970) by SchaafsmaNEMO Science Museum

Revolving drums were not the only option. 

A wash boiler is first placed on the platform of this ‘wash-boiler shaker’, which then vibrates to dislodge any dirt from the clothes.

Other types of vibration devices were immersed in the soapy water.

Washing machine (1950/1960) by RondoNEMO Science Museum

Machines with revolving drums proved to be the most successful design.

During the 1950s and 1960s, washing machines gradually evolved into the shape they have today.

Washing machine and wringer (1930/1940) by ErresNEMO Science Museum


Once it has been washed, laundry next needs to be dried. Machines have now relieved humanity of this task as well.

It all started with wringers, which were fitted to some of the earliest washing machines. Wringers force the laundry between two rollers, which squeezes the water out.

Washer and spin dryer (1942) by Westinghouse Electric & ManufactoringNEMO Science Museum

Later on, spin dryers became all the rage. Here, water is flung out of the rapidly spinning clothing by centrifugal force. This machine, which dates from 1942, can both wash and spin dry. 

Tumble dryer (1950/1970) by English ElectricNEMO Science Museum

In the second half of the 20th century, the tumble dryer was introduced. This is a separate machine that gets clothes completely dry. 

Tub-type washing machine (1930) by MieleNEMO Science Museum

According to Statistics Netherlands, by 2004 almost every household in the country had a washing machine, and about sixty percent had a tumble dryer.

Credits: Story

Object of the Month – June 2021 

Each month, NEMO Science Museum spotlights one item from its collection of 19,000 special objects. These objects, which were once part of people’s everyday lives, show us how technology changes over time. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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