Blackstone Washing machines, known as Vandergrift prior to 1903, were among the iconic products of Jamestown industry from 1880 to around 1980. A full length book could and should be written about the history of the Blackstone company, the product lines it ventured into, and the families behind it. We have at least five Blackstone washing machines in the collection. One of them is a recent donation. It is a very early example and in excellent condition.
There is no better place in the Fenton museum to educate people about the contrast between present and past than our basement laundry room. Some readers may have read or heard the story of the invention of the Blackstone washer by William Blackstone in Indiana in 1874 as a birthday present for his wife. How many have wondered how the wife laundered the clothes before that? The answer involves a washboard. Modern people most often encounter galvanized metal washboards in antique stores and hanging on home or restaurant walls for decoration. In the 1960’s and 70’s as well as the 1920’s, we occasionally saw them used as percussion instruments in folk or jug bands.
Fenton used to feature a Homespun unit in its education program. Children could learn how women on Mondays, the traditional laundry day of the work week, washed, dried, and often ironed the clothes they made and for which they had spun and woven the fabric other days of the week. With sleeves rolled up to the elbows of their strong arms, they kneaded and wrestled the clothes or worked them with plungers in a wash tub filled with water they had carried from the well and heated on a wood burning stove. For especially heavy or difficult dirt, they scrubbed them on the washboard at the side of the tub. Then they would dump the water from the tub, refill it with clean water and wrestle the clothes around for the rinse, then dump the water again, wring out the clothes by hand and hang them on an outdoor clothes line to dry.
The natural fabrics: cotton, wool, and linen, made the work much harder than we might otherwise imagine. Before World War II, women used specially formulate laundry soap, not synthetic detergents. Soap was less effective and it created a troublesome scum (calcium stearate) that interfered with cleaning and built up on the equipment surfaces. In pioneer times, women didn’t even have access to sodium hypochlorite bleach. One of the uses of pearl ashes, one of Chautauqua County’s first export products, was for washing soda. The earliest pioneer women didn’t even have washboards. They went to the creek and pounded clothes with rocks.
From all of this maybe we can appreciate how Mrs. Blackstone and other 19th century women, despite having to power the mechanism of the washing machine with their arms, found the invention a great blessing. Just after the turn of the 20th century, manufacturers began to install electric motors (in cities where electricity was available) or quirky, dirty, and noisy little gasoline engines under the washing machine tubs to provide the power. It wasn’t until after World War II that automatic washing machines were introduced by Blackstone and other makers. They had the fill water and the drain water plumbed directly to and from the washer. Little motors, cams, and relays took care of the whole wash, rinse, and dry sequence. Wow!
Our new acquisition bears patent dates of 1883 and 1892 and is probably earlier than any other washer in our collection. It is the model that was often pictured as the earliest example of a Blackstone in their advertising.
My mother grew up in a home with no plumbing. I remember her making her own soap in World War II. She had a keen appreciation for both laundry detergents and automatic washing machines. Our Amish neighbors today with their huge laundry burdens have to manually fill and drain their non-automatic machines powered by gasoline engines. Many parts of the world still do not have the full complement of pressurized running water, electricity, and automatic washing machines. The modern woman, like the modern man and even the modern child is filled with dissatisfactions and politics, passions and protests often to the point of foolishness for lack of historical perspective. We live in luxury and ease our grandparents could not have imagined and kings a few centuries ago could not afford. And we assume it is natural and inevitable if we think about it at all.