On November 16, 1874, an Indiana man by the name of William Blackstone gave his wife what might at first sound like the worst birthday gift ever. A manufacturer of farm equipment, Blackstone was definitely one of those handy fellas to have around, and what he made for the missus was perhaps the first in-home washing machine.
It consisted of a wooden tub that held water and contained pegs designed to agitate the clothing when Mrs. Blackstone turned a hand crank. And though it would be another thirty-four years until the first electric washer came along, and then another forty years or so before the electric washer started to become a common home appliance, I think it’s safe to say that the gift made the woman’s life a little easier.
Because according to Catharine Beecher, sister to writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and promoter of education of and by women (as long as they didn’t go so far as to think they ought to get to vote), laundry was (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), “The biggest pain in the housewife’s bustle.”
I don’t doubt that it was. Before the washing machine, women could be found on laundry day soaking their family’s clothes and then scrubbing them with caustic lye soap against washboards or pounding them around with a stick in a barrel, then boiling (while stirring to prevent scorching), rinsing, rinsing again, drying, and ironing (without the benefit of a handy steam iron that plugs into the wall, and yet still sees little use in my house).
Obviously, these women didn’t get much else done on laundry day. I can relate. Sort of. If you are an especially wonderful person who reads this blog regularly, you may have noticed I failed to post last week. And if you also follow me on any other forms of social media (like Twitter or Facebook, and if you do, then you are an absolutely amazingly wonderful person), then you might have noticed I’ve been pretty silent on those as well.
Initially that’s because I was on a vacation trip with my family, though lately, my absence has been more directly related to the piles and piles of laundry produced by such a trip. Honestly, I don’t know how four people, at least two of whom most of the time couldn’t care less whether or not they wear clean clothes, can produce so much laundry. I’ve tried to do that math. It doesn’t work out.
Of course I haven’t just been doing laundry. I’ve also been trying to organize and unpack everything else, while working to get back to some semblance of a summer routine, in which I arrange my children’s social lives, constantly fighting them on their use of electronics. I’ve also been exercising to try to lose the extra five vacation pounds I just put on. And I’ve been working on putting together a syllabus for a class I’ll be teaching in the fall, when I haven’t taught the course in more than ten years. And I’ve been catching up on e-mails, and volunteer stuff, and my reading/reviewing backlog, and short stories with looming deadlines, and, and, and…
So as the person who does most of the laundry in my house, I am definitely grateful for the ability to toss the clothes in the washer and forget about them until they smell mildewy and I have to run the cycle again. Actually, I’m not sure the convenience saves me that much time, though. Because if I had to spend a full day soaking and scrubbing and rinsing and ironing, maybe I wouldn’t try so hard to overextend myself in other ways.
I hope that’s not what Mrs. Blackstone found when her husband gave her a washing machine for her birthday, when all she probably really wanted was
jewelry a chance to read a book without having to listen to a child drone on and on and on about Minecraft/Star Wars/Lord of the Rings.
I may be projecting a little bit there.
I’m sure Mr. Blackstone’s wife loved her gift. It wasn’t long until the neighbors got wind of it and soon he was out of the farm equipment business and into the manufacturing of washing machines instead. The invention was a success, and I hope it helped Mrs. Blackstone get what she really wanted for her next birthday, just a little extra time to post to her blog, or to at least read a few chapters of a good book in peace.