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Steam-powered clothes washer

Steam-powered clothes washers like this one took the place of the onerous and time-consuming task of laundering by hand.

Introducing a new column that explores some of the many treasures that exist in the archives of the Dunn County Historical Society’s Rassbach Heritage Museum:

Some of the items I’ll introduce you to have been on display, while others have not. Whatever these items are, they have a story to tell, and I will bring that story to you.

Today’s item of interest is an amazing steam-powered clothes washer. Clothes washing as we know, started by hand. Laundering by hand involved the seemingly unending task of soaking, beating, scrubbing and rinsing the dirty clothes, not to mention hanging, drying and folding, or ironing which was a huge task unto itself.

Water for the laundry was carried by hand usually in a heavy cast iron cauldron, by the woman doing this unenviable task. The water was then heated over a large fire before being poured into a tub.

Then out came the dreaded wash board and lye soap. Removal of soap and water from the clothing was a separate process. First, the soap would be rinsed out with clear water. After rinsing, the soaking wet clothes would be formed into a roll and twisted by hand to remove the water. Some of you may remember this process and also remember that doing the laundry occupied an entire day of hard work — plus drying and ironing.

In an attempt to reduce the huge amount of labor spent in doing the laundry, manual clothes washing machines began to appear in the 1790s. Progress was very rapid especially in the areas of commercial and institutional laundry.

By the mid-1850s, technology advanced to a point where steam-driven commercial laundry equipment was becoming available. Smaller versions of steam-powered washers, such as the one in the picture from our collection, began to appear in the 1890s, leaving time for other duties. Let’s take a closer look at this machine.

How it works

As you can see, the tank on our machine is constructed of wood, well worn from use. If you look closely at the inside of the tank. you can see it is finished with a wooden ribbed material running from top to bottom. The bottom of the tank is also finished in the same way. This ribbed material helped remove more dirt from the clothing.

What you can see from the interior is a very interesting agitator made from wood. It is similar in appearance to a milk stool. Coming out of the center of the top of the agitator is a metal shaft that goes up through the top of the machine where it connects to a series of gears mounted on a horizontal shaft.

The shaft travels across the top of the lid into a brass tank which contains a piston (left side of the lid). Steam powers the piston back and forth, causing the agitator to move the clothing around the ribbed interior of the tank. Once clean, the heavy, wet clothing would be fed through the hand wringer and fall into a laundry basket where they waited to be taken to the clothes line for hanging and drying.

Fortunately for us, technological advancement didn’t stop with this machine. It continued on until present day. Modern washers and driers can preform virtually any laundry task. They have more computing capability in them than the United State’s first spacecraft to the moon. Now all we have to do is teach the machines how to load and unload themselves.

Bruce Gardow is a volunteer at the Dunn County Historical Museum who shares his extensive knowledge as he explores some of the many treasures that exist in the archives of the Dunn County Historical Society’s Rassbach Heritage Museum, located at 1820 Wakanda St. in Menomonie’s Wakanda Park.

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Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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