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How The Washing Machine Changed Our World

How many of us love to do laundry?  The seemingly never-ending cycle of washing, drying, and ironing is viewed a tedious chore some would rather do without.

However, it wasn't really that long ago that things were much, much worse. Despite 97% of UK households now owning a washing machine, we don't really acknowledge how indispensable they are to our lifestyles.

UK Washing Machine Ownership 1970 - 2016

washing machine ownership


Th truth is, automatic washing machines have reduced our workload so we can spend our time more productively and on things we enjoy. And let's face it - pretty much anything is more enjoyable than doing the laundry!

This article illustrates how the invention of the washing machine completely changed our society.

Life Before Washing Machines

Humans began to wear clothes 170,000 years ago. Since then we have invented a whole range of products that we need to launder. Duvets, sheets, jackets and socks that always seem to go missing in protest at being washed after one wear.

The oldest method of washing clothes was using a water source such as a river. Laundry was then beaten on the rocks before leaving them to dry in the sun.

The Romans introduced public laundries. These public wash-houses, in some form or another, remained prevalent for hundreds of years. Women would visit the wash-house a day a week to do the household laundry and exchange village gossip.

In the 1700's the back-breaking task of laundry started to get easier with the invention of new technologies. First, the washboard came along. This made it marginally easier to scrub the dirt out of soiled clothes.

Women still had to spend a full day collecting water, heating water, soaping and scrubbing, and finally rinsing and drying out the clothes. Even with the invention of the mangle doing the household laundry was still a mammoth task.

The 1930's saw the invention of the first electric washing machine. However, at this stage the washing machine wasn’t fully automated; only the drum was mechanised.

When the automated washing machine was finally invented, they were too expensive for most people to afford.

washing machine history

Image Credit: Flickr

By the 1970s, 65% of UK households had a washing machine. People who didn’t own one would have to visit the local launderette. This would involve carrying the laundry to the shop, waiting for it to wash, transferring it to a dryer, waiting for it dry, and then carrying it home again.

Finally, by the late 1990s, over 90% of UK households had a washing machine. This freed women, who were responsible for the laundry, of the trips to the launderette. 

Is The Washing Machine A Bigger Game Changer Than The Internet?

Ha-Joon Chang, an economist at Cambridge University, claims that:

“The washing machine changed the world more than the internet”.

It sounds a bit of an absurd claim, doesn’t it? How can the washing machine have changed our lives more than the internet? The internet allows us to access more information that we could read in a lifetime. We can also speak and see family on the other side of the world in real time.

Ha-Joon isn’t the only one making this seemingly outlandish claim. Hans Rosling, a Swedish statistician who made it onto the Times’ 100 most influential people list in 2012, called the washing machine “the greatest invention of the industrial revolution”.

So, why do they believe the washing machine is so important? Part of their reasoning is that women used to spend a considerable amount of time washing clothes. We can see from looking at life before washing machines the enormity of the task.

Doing the laundry didn’t only take up time, it also required considerable physical strength. With the risk of catching waterborne diseases or trapping fingers in a mangle; doing laundry could be dangerous too.

The invention of the washing machine gave women back a vast amount of time. Free from the shackles of laundry, many women found themselves with enough time to enter the labour market.

By entering the labour market, the status of women in society began to change. Women could now make an independent living, meaning that they no longer had to rely on provision from men. This played a huge role in men and women being perceived as equals in society.

It is because of this changed perception of women in home and workplace that makes Ha-Joon Chang and Hans Rosling believe that the washing machine is one of the most important inventions of all time. 

Still Not Convinced?

One of the easiest ways to highlight the impact of the washing machine is to look at societies that have washing machines. By comparing them to ones without washing machines we can see the huge impact they have had.

In Peru, a study conducted in a slum with 30,000 residents found that doing laundry took 6 hours a day up to three times a week. This doesn’t only contribute to chronic lower back pain and respiratory problems, but also means that the residents have no time to dedicate to finding a way out of poverty.

In Africa, people have to walk upwards of 4 miles each way to access the water required to wash their clothes. Using traditional methods, such as washing in a river, leads to detergents contaminating the water source. This is bad for both them and the environment.

There can be no doubt that if the citizens of Peru and Africa had to spend less time doing laundry that they would be able to dedicate more time to working, starting a business, or finding other ways to halt the poverty cycle.

Pulling out of poverty and building a better world would change their society, as it changed ours. 

Here is the TED Talk by Hans Rosling on this very issue.

What Do You Think?

We hope that after reading this article that you appreciate your washing machine a little bit more. Maybe you won’t resent doing the laundry quite as much anymore!

Whether you agree or disagree that it’s had more of an impact that the internet, we’re sure we can agree that the washing machine is a great invention.

Do you remember a time before washing machines or have you lived somewhere with them?

We would love to know how you used to do laundry and what you do with your time now you have a washing machine. 

2 thoughts on “How The Washing Machine Changed Our World”

    • Hi, thanks for your comment!

      Your comment confuses me though as I have written:

      “The arrival of the 1900s saw the first electric washing machine being patented and built…By the 1920s washing machines that could spin, as an alternative to wringing out water manually, were sold”

      Which complements the information shared on the Quora thread. I can’t find the sentence you quote in my copy…


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