The Gas-Powered Maytag Wringer Washer

Wash Day – Oklahoma, Circa 1937

When I was growing up, Monday was always wash day unless it rained.  Mother couldn’t hang clothes on the clothesline to dry if the weather was bad.

About the time I started to school in 1937, my parents had saved enough money to buy a Maytag gasoline-powered wringer washing machine.  I think it was a 1933 model 31, which they bought used.  My mother worked cleaning other people’s houses to help pay for it, and Dad plowed people’s gardens and sold vegetables that he and Mother raised.  I think Mother made a dollar for cleaning a house once a week.  Mother also took in ironing; she got 25 cents per dozen pieces of ironing.

Cast Iron Pot for Heating Water Similar to Pot Mentioned in the Story– This One is from North Carolina–Dorothea Lange, 1939 Library of Congress

In another story, I told about carrying water up from the creek to soak rags to stuff into gaps around the windows and doors when the dust storms blew in.  Well, we carried water from the same creek so Mother could do the wash. We would fill a big, black, cast-iron kettle with water, build a wood fire around the kettle, and bring the water to a boil.  When the water boiled, Mother would fill the washer with a bucket.  We kept the fire going to keep her first rinse water hot.  She had a second tub of cold water for her final rinse.

Mother used soap that she made herself with lard, lye, and ashes.  I wish I knew her recipe.  If this sounds like a lot of hard work, it was, but much easier than doing all the scrubbing on a wash board.

Tuesdays were ironing days, and this was her day to listen to “Stella Dallas,” the radio soap opera, on our battery-powered radio.  She used old-fashioned cast-iron flatirons that she heated on our wood-burning cook stove.  As the iron she was using grew cold, she would switch it for one that was heating on the stove.

Later, when most of the children were gone from home, my oldest brother gave her a Coleman gasoline iron and lamp.  The more I think about these things, the more I realize what a remarkable woman my mother was.

Editor’s Note: In the early 1970s I asked a friend’s great aunt, who was in her late eighties at the time, what the most remarkable invention had been in her lifetime.  She was born in the 1880s and had seen the coming of electricity, the telephone, the radio, automobiles, airplanes, space travel, television, and countless other things we now take for granted like refrigerators, central heat and indoor plumbing.  Her response?  Ready-made soap powder.  She said it was the greatest convenience not to have to make your own soap before you could wash clothes.  I will always remember that.

Check out some great pictures of vintage wringer washers on our “Images of America” page: http://americansremember.com/?page_id=683, and a story on this site from the 1960s about a wringer washer: http://americansremember.com/?page_id=221

And for your viewing pleasure, here is a great video from YouTube of a Maytag 1933 Model 31 gasoline-powered wringer washer in action:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NRWEq7gL-I

Melissa C. from Cincinatti, OH sent the following comment:  One summer about 25 years ago my family rented a cabin in a remote wilderness area of the Rocky Mountains for several weeks.  It had been built in the late 1800s by a gold prospector, and had no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing.  We had to haul water from a nearby stream for cooking and washing, and heat it over a fire if we wanted hot water.  The cabin came with a washboard and a big tin washtub, and about three weeks into our stay I tried using the washboard to clean some of our clothes.   I was completely exhausted after washing just a few things, and that’s with my husband and kids helping to haul water from the stream and wring everything by hand.   We finally gave up and made an 80 mile round-trip to the nearest town and laundromat.  I cannot imagine what it must have been like trying to wash sheets, heavy denim work overalls, or those long dresses women wore back in the day on a washboard like that.    Having a gas-powered wringer washer would have been such a huge convenience and step forward.  Staying at that cabin was a great adventure for my family,  and gave me a real appreciation of what women with families went through back then to keep everyone fed and in clean clothes.

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