Blast from the Past: When Doing the Laundry Was a Gas

Laundry day was Monday on Grandma’s Iowa farm which didn’t get electricity until 1945.

By Andy Kriege, YSN

For Those Who Long for the Smell of Exhaust Fumes on Their Laundry
We all take it for granted that doing a load of laundry is an almost effortless task. However, in my grandmother’s day, laundry was a full-blown chore. Her traditional day for laundry was Monday. She called it “laundry day” because it took the entire day to knock out a week’s worth of wash for the family of six.

So, for years my grandmother was among those who did the laundry on the front porch using a gasoline-powered washing machine. While my mother can’t remember exactly which kind of washer they had, there is a very good chance it was a Maytag Model 90 or 92. Maytag was originally in the business of producing farm implements but gradually moved into the laundry category. It successfully cast the first aluminum washer tub in 1919, which eliminated problems inherent in the wooden tub construction that preceded it, and by the 1920s focused on producing washers for the masses, aided by a Multi-Motor gasoline engine model that would become a boon to rural homemakers without electricity.

A Laundry Evolution…
In addition to the aluminum tub, Maytag’s development department came up with one of the most significant inventions in laundry appliance history. Its revolutionary washing principle was to force the water through fabric with a vaned agitator mounted to the bottom of the tub. The new design put the company exclusively into the washer business, marking the end of Maytag’s farm equipment manufacturing and propelling it to a dominant position in the budding laundry appliance industry.

Creates a Laundry Revolution
Stand back and behold as you wash up to 50 pounds of clothing per hour in the cast aluminum tub. A separate rinse cycle was optional and not necessarily a great choice for an overworked housewife during the Depression. To drain the tub, simply unhook the drain hose and let ’er dangle. This would empty 21 gallons of soapy water onto your shoes and wash off all the gasoline you may have spilled.

The Maytag Model 92 Multi-Motor was a single-cylinder, 2-cycle gasoline engine that developed a whopping 3/4 horsepower.

The Toyota Prius of the Day
Among the most common of these products were the Maytag Model 90 and Model 92. These new units were remarkable in that they could run on electricity or gasoline — they were the Toyota Prius of early washers! Electric was the best option if available, but if you weren’t on the power grid yet, you’d simply connect the optional two-stroke, ¾ horsepower gasoline engine to your Maytag’s drive belt and hold your ears.

Operating the gas-powered Multi-Motor was relatively simple: Pour a little gasoline/oil mix into the integrated tank, being careful not to spill any on your shoes (and best to put out your cigarette first). Give it a little choke, then step on the starter pedal once or twice and vroom! It was highly recommended that you connect the flexible exhaust pipe (included), which channeled most of the blue smoke and carbon monoxide outdoors.

No worries about a soapy taste; your butter is made in a self-contained unit with the optional Maytag churn/cream whipper attachment.

Multitasking? Thanks for Asking
Once you’ve washed all your clothes and wrung them dry, you’d step back and wonder what to do with all the time you just saved. Well, how about some sausage? Optional attachments for your Maytag Model 92 included a meat grinder. Simply lift off the motorized wringer and install the Maytag grinder attachment. Now you can grind up meats, nuts, fruits or rodents at the astonishing rate of two pounds per hour!

Wilson Appliance founder EV Wilson (second from left, leaning on the wagon wheel) gets ready to sell some gas-powered Maytag washers on commission and door to door, circa 1928.

A Business Built on Dirty Laundry
For Nate Wilson, president of Wilson Appliance Centers in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and a member of BrandSource affiliate The New England Appliance & Electronics Group (NEAEG, these machines were instrumental in launching his family business. His grandfather, EV Wilson, made a living selling the products door to door off the back of a Model T pickup truck on straight commission. He would load two up at the railyard and pound on doors until both were sold, at which time he either went back for two more or went home for the night.

Wilson Appliance Centers’ sales manager Kevin McKee, left, and owner Nate Wilson with a restored Maytag Model 90, converted from gas to electric.

To commemorate the integral role that these old Maytag machines played in giving rise to the company, the Wilsons restored a 1928 Maytag Model 90 wringer and put it on display at the store. The unit was converted from gas to electric and is still fully functional.

“It’s great to see customer reactions to it,” Wilson said. “Younger generations don’t know what it is, and older generations share stories of catching their fingers in the wringer.”

BrandSource, a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc., is a nationwide buying group for independent appliance, mattress, furniture and CE dealers.