Trail End

Independent of the Sun

Light, Energy & the American Home, 1913-1933

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
​March 2007 - December 2007

​Defeating the Dragons of Drudgery

THE EARLY TWENTIETH Century was a time of great change in the areas of household technology and cleanliness. While homes were always expected to be spotlessly clean, free of dust and dirt, they were now expected to be sanitary as well – free of germs. Most of the tasks that would create this sanitary home environment were exhausting labors that had to be repeated day in and day out, week after week, year after year.

One could ask the question: which came first, a higher standard of cleanliness or the appliances that made possible the attainment of that standard? It's a good question, but one that will not be answered here. Suffice it to say that electrical appliances played their part in releasing the homemaker from the worst of household drudgery, but didn't necessarily cut down on the amount of time she spent on housekeeping tasks.

In its attempt to encourage American households to use more electrical appliances, General Electric equated the high physical price of a woman's labor to the relatively inexpensive cost of their products. Rather than spend a few cents an hour to use a modern device, they said, a woman spent years of her life instead. It may have been an effective advertising campaign, as the sale of GE appliances soared in the late 1920s.


Once a week – usually on Monday – laundry was done in nearly every household in America. Before automatic washers were introduced, the homemaker would follow an age-old routine of laundry-related activities:

  • Gather dirty clothes and linens
  • Sort clothes into loads by fabric type, weight and color
  • Treat stains with bleach, ammonia or cleaning fluid
  • Soak whites in bluing solution to remove yellow hard water stains
  • Wash clothes in hottest water possible containing dissolved soap flakes
  • Use washboard or dasher to scrub out stubborn stains
  • Repeatedly rinse clothes – once in boiling water and once in cold water – to remove soap
  • Run wet material through wringers – or wring out by hand – to remove excess water
  • Dip clothes in starch solution, if desired
  • Place any shrinkage-prone or hard-to-iron clothes on stretchers to dry
  • Load clothes into wicker or wooden baskets
  • Hang clothes up outside with clothespins until dry (if too cold, hang on lines in house)
  • Take clothes off line and return to baskets
  • Sprinkle water on any clothes that are to be ironed and roll them up to avoid creating more wrinkles
  • Heat sad irons on stove until very hot
  • Iron, iron, iron – being careful not to scorch the fabric
  • Fold ironed clothes neatly for storage in drawers, closets or trunks
  • Put clothes away

Washday was a backbreaking exercise in futility – the laundry just got dirty and wrinkled again and had to be cleaned and ironed all over:

Always Ruth was hoping to find time to answer neglected letters; to make new curtains for the front room; and above all, to be a real comrade to little Betty. Yet this she was denied – held captive by a hundred household tasks. Worst of all the time-takers was Washday with its everlasting steam and smell. Week after week one precious day was lost and nothing to show for it. Nothing but a tired body, an upset house – and the prospect of another washday. But that was before Ruth made her discovery; before she found freedom. The day the modern laundry came into her life, the Dragon of Drudgery crept out the back way. Now ‘Washday’ is a matter of minutes.

The first electric washing machine was introduced by Hurley Manufacturing Company in 1908 and patented in 1910. Invented by Alva J. Fisher, the Thor Washing Machine consisted of a galvanized tub with an electric motor to rotate the drum (previous hand-cranked washers had been made with wooden tubs). Whirlpool and Maytag both introduced their first electric washers in 1911. Maytag, which is still a powerhouse appliance manufacturer today, came up with two important innovations: in 1915, it created a gasoline-powered motorized washer that could be used on remote farms and ranches; in 1919, it introduced the first aluminum washer – an achievement which up to that time had been deemed impossible.

Relieving homemakers from the worst aspects of arduous washday tasks was the goal of all manufacturers of power washing machines, driers and irons:

  • SEARS ROEBUCK, 1923  An Allen Ironer saves three to four hours time every ironing day!
  • HURLEY MANUFACTURING, 1926  Let Thor Electric Washers and Ironers save your time, strength and youth!
  • BETTER HOMES & GARDENS, 1928  A clothes drier in the home laundry makes the weather unimportant!
  • SAVAGE WRINGERLESS, 1929  Your hands need never touch water again on wash day!

Some manufacturers, like Easy Washer, got a little carried away in describing their product:

A thing of copper, steel and aluminum, yet it seems to reflect something of the human quality of the women who helped us build it, seems to understand and sympathize with the troubles and burdens which they passed on to us and which it is designed to relieve.

In 1929, the Eden Appliance Corporation introduced the Edenette table-top washing machine, a unit particularly appealing to apartment-living city dwellers and others with limited time and space for laundry tasks:

Here is Your Washing Machine! No drudgery washing the Edenette way. A perfect washing turned out in 15 minutes right on your kitchen table or wherever convenient, without fuss, bother or slopping suds. Your Edenette Electric Washer is a great time and labor saving piece of machinery. The machine is so simple that the maid can use it, as no special skill is required.


Before the turn of the 20th Century, most homes in America had bare wood floors covered by area rugs. At least once a year – and usually more often – these rugs would have to be rolled up and taken outside to have the dirt beaten out of them. If the homemaker was a modern one, she would have a carpet sweeper for use in-between times. If a house had a bare wood floor, such as the one in the Trail End ballroom, it had to be kept clean and attractive. This was accomplished through regular waxing and polishing. Before the advent of the electric floor polisher, getting a radiantly glowing floor was backbreaking work, a chore that usually had to be accomplished on hands and knees.

By 1926, the S. C. Johnson Company had developed an electric polisher which could, by spinning 2,100 times a minute, “burnish the wax to a wonderful, even, deep-toned luster.” Through the magic of electricity, floor polishing became so easy a child could do it:

It is easy now to have beautiful waxed floors in every room. All you do is to spread on a thin coat of Johnson’s Polishing Wax. Then run the Johnson Electric Polisher over the floor and let electricity do all the work. This electric floor polisher runs itself – you don’t need to push it or bear down on it – just guide it. It is ten times better and quicker than the old-fashioned hand methods. With it you can polish all your floors in the time it used to take to do a single room.


Prior to the vacuum cleaner, the best device for dusting floors – be they wood or linoleum – was the dust mop. The best device for cleaning rugs, on the other hand, was the carpet sweeper. By running these devices back and forth over her floors and rugs, the homemaker could pick up most surface dust and debris. But it was hard repetitive work that took up a great deal of time.

Inventors knew there had to be an easier way, and they worked on the problem for decades. Although the first American "suction cleaner" was patented in the 1860s – a hand-pumped, wood and canvas contraption invented by Chicago resident Ives McGaffey – it took another forty-plus years for a household-sized electric model to appear. In between, there were several attempts at introducing vacuum cleaning to homes and businesses both here and overseas. Nearly all, however had their downsides:

  • 1875  Cleaner introduced with both suction and a brush roller
  • Downside  Hand-cranked

  • 1901  Englishman Hubert Booth invents a gas-powered suction cleaner
  • Downside  Mounted on a horse-drawn wagon

  • 1905  Regina introduces its first hand-pump model
  • Downside  Took two people to make it work

  • 1905  The first "movable" electric vacuum cleaner is introduced
  • Downside  Weighed in at nearly 100 pounds

  • 1905  Royal introduces an upright cleaner
  • Downside  It was a hand-pump model requiring almost as much labor as a rug beater

  • 1907  Jim Spangler makes a portable vacuum from an electric fan, a soap box, a broom handle and a pillowcase
  • Downside  It was only available in Canton, Ohio (sold door-to-door by Spangler himself)

  • 1908  Spangler improves his vacuum cleaner by adding a beater bar
  • Downside  For Spangler, it was that he sold the ground-breaking patent to his wife's cousin, William Henry Hoover

Once Hoover and others successfully marketed their way into the American home, homemakers were finally able to chase down every little bit of dust and dirt that might dare to besmirch their husband's castle: 

The vacuum cleaner, of course, has taken off the curse from sweeping and largely, too, from dusting. ... The vacuum cleaner ... is usable for moldings, tops of windows, curtains and rugs, obviating the dust-flying beatings which wear out not only the fabrics but the housewife. Some people are too lazy to attach the tools made expressly for these special performances and so go on beating, not about the bush, but worse – on their delicate possessions.

It was considered a great personal failing if the woman of the house didn't take advantage of such excellent technology. The Western Vacuum Company told readers in a 1913 advertisement in Cosmopolitan, "Don't be a slave to dirt! Cleaning by vacuum (suction) has come to stay. It is now recognized as a positive necessity by the housewife having any regard at all for cleanliness, sanitation, or time and labor saving in her work."

In the late 1910s and into the 1920s, motors became smaller and vacuum cleaners became considerably lighter (a nine pound unit was available by 1915). By 1926, a small handheld vacuum had been introduced, thus making housekeeping even easier.

 Better Homes & Gardens, 1927-28 (Georgen Collection, TESHS)

Detail from drawing of custom-made foyer chandelier, 1911 (Trail End Collection)

 State Historic Site