Thank Goodness for Laundry

November 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

When was the last time you were thankful to do laundry?

laundry3Right after World War II, electric washing machines were an exciting new possibility for Ypsilanti families. Detroit Edison advertised them in its November 26, 1945 Ypsilanti Daily Press ad. Next to the image of a presumed housewife’s face, the ad copy read, “My electric life is wonderful—and it will be still better.”

The war was over. During it, production of consumer appliances had all but ceased, in favor of steering raw materials to bombers, tanks, and soldiers’ supplies. At war’s end, many of the appliances in Ypsilanti homes dated from the Depression, or earlier.

Factories reverted from wartime production to consumer goods. Metals, rubber, and other resources again became available to domestic manufacturers.

The washing machine in Detroit Edison’s Press ad resembled a barrel. “A peek into my basement,” reads the ‘housewife’s’ narration, “would reveal . . . an all-electric laundry that washes, rinses, and damp-dries [spins] my clothes . . .” Clothes still had to be hung on the clothesline or a rack to dry. But the electric washer was a big step up from hand-cranked wooden washing machines resembling a lidded half-barrel, such as the one in the Ypsilanti Historical Society’s kitchen.

Electric clothes driers, also from Detroit Edison, wouldn’t appear in Ypsilanti newspaper advertisements for another decade. “For the price of a laundry basket you can do 50 loads in your electric clothes dryer,” read a September 4, 1956 Ypsilanti Daily Press ad. “No more heavy clothes baskets to lug outdoors. Just turn the dial to get soft, fluffy laundry every time. No wonder smart homemakers say: ‘You can live Better . . . Electrically.’”

The electric washer wasn’t the only new postwar appliance advertised in the 1945 Detroit Edison ad. Another was a home freezer that offered “fresh foods at any season of the year,” as opposed to seasonal eating. Mention was also made of a “safe” refrigerator.

This echoes earlier ads for GE refrigerators, whose cylindrical compressors on top led to the public’s nicknaming them “Monitor Top,” due to the visual similarity to the famed Civil War ironclad vessel the “Monitor.” One 1927 Monitor Top ad read that it is now “safe to be hungry,” suggesting that food spoiled relatively quickly in old-fashioned iceboxes.

The other two appliances in the 1945 Detroit Edison ad are a “clean” electric range (as opposed to a sooty wood or coal stove) and an air conditioner that is the size of a modern fridge and dishwasher combined. The ad also read “No more worrying about hot water in the morning, for my husband’s shaving, or during the day for the hot water needed for a thousand and one chores, and at night for the refreshing baths we all look forward to so much.”

gas3Reliable hot water that didn’t need to be heated on a stovetop was also a selling point for the Ypsilanti City Gas Department. The YCGD, headquartered at 111 Pearl Street (now the site of Congdon’s Hardware) also jumped into the postwar business of selling appliances. Its April 23, 1946 Ypsilanti Daily Press ad promises, “all the hot water you need from an automatic GAS water heater on 24-hour service for kitchen, laundry, bath.” This device was an early iteration of what is now known as a tankless water heater.

The gas company ad’s main selling point, however, was that the kitchen would be cooler without a cast iron stove.

The electric or gas range wasn’t new. As early as 1933 electric ranges were advertised in local papers. “Enjoy these advantages of Electric Cooking!” read one November 6, 1933 Detroit Edison Ad in the Press. The ad listed the five virtues of electric cooking. The first was “clean.” “There is no smoke or soot to blacken utensils or soil kitchen walls or curtains.” The next benefit was “waterless cooking.” “With your electric range you use no water for roasts and only half a cup for vegetables.” The remaining 3 virtues were “modern,” “healthful,” and “full flavored.” The ad offered a trial period of six months for a dollar a month, after which the user could buy the range or have it removed from the home at no expense.

Even earlier, in 1907 the Washtenaw Light and Power Company held its “Great Free Electric Cooking Demonstration” downtown, as noted in an article in the April 18, 1907 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“The audience at the cooking demonstration grows larger with each succeeding day and each lady who has attended is greatly enthused over the wonderful things that are being accomplished with the agent electricity.”

The article continued, “The demonstration of cooking is made at a very attractive booth, and here also are exhibited and used the different utensils, such as combination liquid beaters, cereal cookers, coffee percolators, chafing dishes, broilers, frying pans, and ovens, all of which are extremely serviceable. A huge Japanese umbrella, studded with variously colored electric lights, is suspended above the booth, giving the display a brilliant appearance. Attendees sampled tomato rarebit, tapioca pudding, coffee, and cake.”

But electrical devices didn’t find widespread acceptance in town until the post-WWII period. Then, the new crop of mechanized household aids put money in Detroit Edison’s pocket and gave housewives some reprieve from long days of backbreaking labor.

It’s hard to imagine being grateful for laundry. But after the long desperation of the Depression and the food and fuel rationing and shortages of World War Two, the postwar tide of new home helpers gave new freedom to Ypsilanti housewives.

Something as prosaic as an electric washing machine was a miracle for which to be thankful.

Laura is the authos of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact Laura at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

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