The wonderful washing machine

On March 28th in 1797, Nathaniel Briggs patented the first washing machine. It was heavy, expensive, and took two people to operate it; hooray for electricity and other advancements in our world since then!

My grandmother had a twin tub, and at home we had a standard front-loading model so since childhood, having a washing machine was something that I took for granted. Until I moved to Cork city and rented a flat that was without one.

After living in my new place for a week, I went downstairs to the tiny laundry room to find that the machine there was actually a broken tumble dryer! There was nothing else, save for a few odd socks and mice droppings on the lino. A neighbour told me there had been a communal machine but it was old and had broken a few years previously. The landlord (let’s call him Mick) never bothered to fix or replace it. I was appalled, especially because everyone living in the flats at that time was probably on a very low income; Ireland was in recession. While there were some professionals living in one of the houses that had been converted into apartments, mostly we were part-time workers, artists, unemployed folks, migrants, and students.

Tenants had no choice but to lug bags of clothes up and down the steep city hills to a launderette every week. It was good exercise, but it also took hours to complete the task, and it was expensive too. For people with babies and young children to care for it was even more difficult.

Coffee, paint and mixed materials on a newspaper advert. Kathryn Crowley

Often residents would sit outside chatting on sunny evenings. We had some garden space on a hill, with a row of majestic chestnut trees that acted as a buffer between us and the traffic below. A neighbour living in my block told me how he had stopped requesting a new machine after 6 months because he was fed up of asking and he didn’t want to “get on the wrong side of anyone”.

Tenants were expected to leave their rent money in a little book just inside their front door for the landlord to collect on Fridays between 3pm and 4pm. Mick was a real cash-in-hand kind of guy, but too greedy to part with the price of a new machine. It was sad that my neighbours felt they had no voice, and I felt angry too; it wasn’t like they were demanding a jacuzzi!

When Mick arrived for my rent, I asked him to imagine how he’d feel it if a man arrived to the house every month, put a key in the door and stepped inside to pick up the mortage money. I also asked him for a washing machine. He argued, but after a firey discussion he admitted that he should really see things from another perspective. A week later, the new machine was installed.

Image: Vectostock

As I write this at my kitchen table many years later, I remember everything that happened during that time and how it opened my eyes to some harsh realities. I met some wonderful people back then too. Today I am grateful for the comforting sounds of my clothes on a final spin thanks to Nathaniel Briggs and everyone who developed the wonderful invention that is the washing machine.

I no longer use laundry powder, because it is full of chemicals that poison the water supply and cause allergies. Years ago I liked the scent of “clean” clothes, yet sometimes it was sickly sweet. Then I learned in my 20s that the nice smell was caused by perfumes and a mix of lethal chemicals; it seems obvious now, and I am sure that education and general awareness has improved since then.

Washing detergents are made up of many chemical components including perfume, colour, surfactants, builders, fillers, bleaches, enzymes, and optical brighteners, all with the aim of making clothes seem brighter or whiter. This happens when clothing absorbs ultraviolet light emits blue light. In other words, it is an illusion. Many of the filler ingredients have no function and they are lethal; they choke drains and pollute our water systems, killing aquatic life and fish. As I mentioned earlier, they also cause allergies and serious illness in humans. Liquid detergents contain less harmful chemicals than powder, and of course the eco-friendly versions are the best of all.

In 2021 things are much better in Ireland when it comes to making more Earth-friendly consumer choices. Plant-based detergents are available at low cost in Lidl (look for Formil ‘nature’ pouches of detergent caps that contain aloe vera). They are kinder to the the water supply as well as human health. Even better cleaning products made from natural ingredients are available from Lilys, who are based in the West of Ireland. Some people have even reverted to using baking soda, which is very effective.

For the day that’s in it, here’s Hans Rosling and the magic washing machine (2010) – YouTube

Kathryn Crowley is a writer and artist based in county Limerick, Ireland. Return to website front page: (

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