Sunday, June 30, 2013

Race, Gender, and the Washing Machine

I have encountered race utilized as a commercial sales tool in a number of the advertisements found in Kentucky's Civil War newspapers, but other than the ubiquitous silhouette of a runaway man or woman in those types of notices, little depiction or other illustration has been located. One exception is pictured to the left.

Numerous advertisements to hire or buy women that would serve the purchaser as "an excellent washer, ironer, and cook" appear throughout Kentucky's newspapers during the Civil War. These unpleasant and strenuous duties were reserved, when possible, for African American women - or Irish servants, as I noticed in some instances. White women who could not afford slaves or servants naturally had to do this work themselves, too.

"The Famous New Metropolitan Washing Machine and Universal Cog-Wheel Clothes-Wringer" was invented to save the day. I am not sure how the contraption actually worked as the particulars are not given, but apparently it seems that the stringed bows on either side of the tub served to spin the agitator that descended into the tub. Regardless of how it actually operated, it probably was, as it claims, an improvement over "the old Back-breaking, Wrist-straining and Clothes-destroying Process of Washing!"  However, it is doubtful that, as it also claims, "The Horrors of Wash-day [could be] Turned into a Day of Pleasant Amusement and Healthful Exercise!" Yeah, right!  

I suppose it is not a surprise that the Metropolitan Washing Machine folks chose to use an African American woman to illustrate their device. She is shown operating the invention and wearing a head wrap and what appears to be a neckerchief. The advertisement states that the machine was safe to use with dedicates such as a "Lace Collar," as well as the most heavy- duty carpet bag. The machine washer supposedly cleaned better, saved soap, did less damage to clothing, and did not need boiling water that traditional washing required. Was this particular statement possibly in reference to slave washer woman agency, much like field slaves that wasted seed, broke tools, and mistreated animals in effort to have some control over their workaday lives? Would using the Metropolitan Washing Machine reduce the likelihood of washer women wasting soap, fuel wood, and damaging their owners clothes?

Naturally, in the mid-19th century women would likely not be listed to provide testimony for the Metropolitan Washing Machine. Here though, Louisville bankers and other male community pillars, such as James Guthrie, are given in order to support the advertisement's claims. However, this does show the change over time advertising has experienced. Today, rarely does one see a male on television commercials providing an endorsement for how well a household product cleans or how much time it saves. Gender constructed roles apparently determine that females provide more credible claims for similar products.

In the 19th century an illustration of an African American washer women apparently could help sell machines, but for claims on its durability and usefulness one strangely had to go to males, who probably rarely saw, much less used the invention for its endorsement.      


  1. WOW this was a realy good read!

  2. I had a bosch washer and dryer for 10 years ..No major problems in all of those years. I moved to another state, so I thought instead of paying to have washer and dryer included in the moving van I decided to buy new Whirlpool washer and dryer.