History of the washing machine

Along with the refrigerator, the washing machine is the most widely used household appliance in households around the world. The history of the washing machine goes back to the earliest civilizations, when people tried to find the best ways to wash their clothes, first in running water and then in increasingly sophisticated wash houses and tanks. The washing machine fulfils a basic need: to wash clothes and household linen. And it is this daily need, with the accompanying desire to make the washing process less laborious and more hygienic, that has led to the impressive range of inventions with which we are familiar today.

History of the washing machine



Picture of Yannick

A wash geek since 2017

The first wash houses

Washing laundry by hand is one of the most labor-intensive household chores there is. Washerwomen washed linens with soap at the edge of a stream or river, or in a fountain or washing place. They would rub the cloth on stone or wooden boards, adding sand as necessary to remove stains and caked dirt. Then they would spin it before beating it with a wooden beater to remove as much water as possible. Over the years, washerwomen improved their techniques by using a variety of natural cleaning agents.

The Gauls used bear coolers for better cleaning of the material, a process that dates back 2800 years BC. The embers used in the earliest washing powders were replaced by soda crystals much later. The Romans, on the other hand, built public laundries. Fuller’s grass, imported from Syria, was too expensive, the Romans used fermented human urine to bleach linen, with a high concentration of ammonia. The urine was poured into a tank and fuller women walked on the sheets and clothes to fill them.

Old public laundries

The emperor Vespasian is still famous for having placed a tax on the collection of urine. When his son, Titus, complained about this, Vespasian shoved the first receipts of this tax under Titus’ nose and asked him if they smelled bad. Titus answered that they did not and from this conversation the proverb Pecunia non olet was born: “money does not smell”. Centuries later, the first public toilets were called Vespasians. In 1909, human urine was still being collected for spinning the wool for army beds. Among the working professions that emerged in the nineteenth century, you could also find washers, laundresses, printers and even bleachers. These women worked in laundries or worked on their own account.

The role of washrooms

Before the advent of washing places and other areas set aside for washing, villagers had to fetch dirty water from wells that were a source of infection. The spread of washing places played an important role in terms of public health and hygiene, at a time when cholera, smallpox and typhoid fever were present to devastate populations. State subsidies partially financed the construction of public washing places, and even at that time there were pronouncements on the basic principles of hygiene. Laundries were covered areas constructed to facilitate the work of the laundress. Such establishments were even a sign of wealth and it was possible to determine the level of prosperity of a village by the number of public wash-houses. Laundries also played an important social role: women from all over the village would meet there at least once a week and exchange local news. The washhouse became a ‘talking shop’ and it was not unusual to hear the women singing, as a means of easing their daily chores and passing the time. Laundries gradually disappeared as running water was introduced into homes. The the techniques of the washerwomen who inspired the earliest prototype washing machines. We owe the invention of the washing machine to Jacob Christian Schäffer (1767). 30 years later, an American, Nathaniel Briggs, received the first patent for a washing machine. It involved pouring hot water into a tank, turning a lever to wash the clothes and then wringing them between two rollers. The tank was then drained with a tap. 210 years later, the electric washing machine was invented.

The history of the first washing machine

In 1905 the first drum washing machines appeared. They were still operated by hand, but the steel tank allowed the use of a coal burner. By 1920, the first electric machines were born: only the rotary mechanism was electric. The other controls were still manual.

The advent of automatic machines

It was not until 1930 that machines became automatic. Pressure switches, thermostats and timers were included in the latest models. From the 1980s onwards, developments in electronics meant that washing machines became reactive and ecological. In 1990, a British inventor, James Dyson, produced a washing machine with two cylinders that rotated in opposite directions, reducing washing time and achieving better results.

Today’s washing machines

Nowadays, washing machines are connected to the Internet and may have integrated Wi-Fi for delayed start of washing programs, for example, during off-peak hours when electricity costs are lowest. Some models work without disinfectants, thanks to electrolysis, which separates the positive and negative ions. Some machines will soon be equipped with touchscreens.

Chronology of a revolutionary invention

Until the 18th century, washing was done in the municipal washhouse using a whisk and brush, a little soap and some ash. In many cases you had to go to the next village to do the occasional wash. Washing was a challenging task and a luxury. But this would change thanks to the initiative of a few excellent inventors and entrepreneurs. A look back at the incredible journey of a device that is now part of our everyday lives.


A German, Jacob Christian Schäffer, invented the washing machine. This scientist was a jack-of-all-trades. Holder of degrees in philosophy and theology, a member of many learned societies, including the Academy of Sciences in Paris, Jacob Christian Schäffer prepared a botany manual for pharmacists and physicians, designed a new ornithological classification method, and carried out important work in mycology and entomology as well as experiments with optics and electricity. In 1786 Goethe personally visited the curiosity cabinet of this great scholar.


On March 31 of this year an American, Nathaniel Briggs, filed the first patent for a washing machine.


The very first mechanical washing machines appeared in England.


An American, John E. Turnbul, invented the roller washing machine.


James King filed a patent for the first drum machine. This model was still mechanical and the motor was activated by a crank. Nevertheless, the physical effort was reduced.


A James King machine, including a wringer, makes washing easier.


The Frenchman François Proust created a prototype, more hygienic, double boiler: the steam sterilized the linen. But not all materials can tolerate such a treatment.


The French manufacturer Flandria launched the “Barboteuse”. Thanks to these manual washing machines, household linen could be washed at home in much more comfortable conditions than in laundries. First, the laundry had to be boiled in a washing machine. The laundry was often pre-treated with wood ashes (naturally rich in potash, they acted as detergent and disguised odours). The laundry was then put into the machine, after which the wheel was turned: the back-and-forth movement turned the laundry in both directions, after which the dirty water was drained off via a lip into the gutter.

Electric washing machines


An American engineer, Alva John Fisher, is generally regarded as the inventor of the first electric machine. However, at least one patent was filed for him for a model electric machine. However, the identity of the inventor is unknown to this day. Wooden tanks were replaced by metal ones.


The Hurley Electric Laundry Equipment Company launched “Thor”, the first electric washing machine to be marketed with the Alva J. Fisher prototype (patented in 1910): the drum was driven by an electric motor. In the first models this motor was not watertight and short-circuits often occurred: the machine was therefore potentially dangerous. Moreover, the machine did not wring out the linen.


Joe Barlow and John Seeling founded Barlow & Seeling Manufacturing, later Speed Queen, today a world leader in industrial laundry and laundromats, recognized for the amazing durability of its professional washing machines.

1911: Efficiency improvement for washing machines

Barlow & Seeling Manufacturing improved the electric washing machine, made it safer and more efficient, and then began selling its own model.


Speed Queen introduced the first multidirectional wringer.


Electric motors became waterproof and had two speeds: slow for washing, faster for spinning. At the Paris fair, this washing machine showed a strong interest.


The first machine with a built-in spin function was born. Sales of electric washing machines soon reached 913,000 units in the United States.


The first washing machines went on the French market: they had the rotary function included.


American Chamberlain worked for the Bendix Aviation Corporation and invented a multifunctional machine that could wash, rinse and spin in one cycle. A patent was filed the same year for this model, which is considered the first automatic washing machine.

The spread of the automatic washing machine

Automatic washing machines perform all washing operations without any manual intervention. But automatic washing machines, still an innovation in the early 1950s, were expensive and, to begin with, mainly confined to laundromats.

  1. A programmer starts the machine
  2. A pressure switch and solenoid valve cut off the water supply when the tank is filled.
  3. A thermostat regulates the temperature
  4. A timer determines the operating time.

Very few households could afford them. Laundromats grew in number in all major American and European cities in the 1950s and 1960s. Models continued to improve, including centrifugal force to wring out laundry and incorporating programmed wash cycles (one wash cycle for each type of laundry, the wool cycle not until 1997).

The rinsing machines from the 60s characterize evolution

Different brands of washing machines started to advertise their products. In 1967, 44% of French households had a washing machine. Ten years later, 74% of French households had one. From the 1980s onwards, the machines contained miniaturised electronic components (microprocessors, RAM…) and consumed less and less water and electricity, in an attempt to preserve the environment. Today, washing machines offer dozens of wash cycles and water levels, programmable before or during the wash. Let us help you find the best washing machine for you.

Picture of Yannick

A wash geek since 2017

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