What Was Used to Clean Clothes Before Washing Machines?

Before the invention of the electric washing machine, laundry was backbreaking, time-consuming physical labour that involved hauling water and lifting buckets and tubs filled with wet clothes and linens. The tools of the laundress included washtubs, washboards and hand-cranked washing machines.


In Roman times, people took their laundry to "fulleries," the ancient equivalent of laundromats, where fullones soaked the clothing in large basins cut into the floor. They washed more heavily soiled items by putting them in large bowls and dancing or jumping on them. In the Middle Ages, women washed clothing every one to two months, using large tubs with a drain and wooden paddles to stir the clothing. Colonial women boiled clothing in cauldrons and beat it with sticks to loosen the dirt. After 1797, women scrubbed clothing on corrugated washboards.


Washboards consist of a piece of corrugated wood, stone or metal set into a frame. The earliest washing machines used a lever to scrub clothing between two washboards. Later hand-cranked washing machines featured paddles inside a drum and could wash more than one item at a time.

Fun Fact

One man attached an old bicycle frame to a hand-cranked washing machine, according to a side note in "1,001 Old-Time Household Hints" by the editors of "Yankee Magazine."

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About the Author

Deb Powers is an avid urban gardener who works with a community collective to promote sustainable urban agriculture and build partnerships between local business owners and community organizations. Powers serves as a social media and marketing consultant for local non-profits and businesses, and is collaborating with a coffee roaster to publish a cookbook highlighting coffee as a culinary ingredient.