Washing machine, 1950s

 

A History of Ireland in 100 ObjectsThe wringer on top of this washing machine makes it look laborious, but in the 1950s its manufacturer, Servis, advertised it with slogans like “a wringer so easy, a child can wring a blanket”. (The child in the ad was, of course, a girl.) The placing of the upright tub inside a sleek white cabinet was, at the time, the height of domestic modernity. In an Irish country kitchen, this British-made appliance was an object from a brave new world.

In a round-table discussion on Irish feminism in 2010 the former Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy asked a group of women: “What invention changed any of your lives most?” Mamo McDonald, born in 1929 and long a leading figure in the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, replied without hesitation: “the washing machine”.

Washing machines had been available to wealthy households in Ireland since the mid 19th century: an advertisement in this newspaper in 1860 praised “Bradford’s patent washing machine” as “the most compact . . . that has yet been introduced”.

By the 1940s electric machines were reasonably common in the more prosperous parts of urban Ireland, though they were still described as luxuries.

But the really large-scale social impact of the washing machine had to await not just the availability of cheaper automatic machines, after the second World War, but also general access to piped water and electricity in Ireland’s still largely rural society.

McDonald recalled that the ICA “carried out a campaign for water in the home and urged rural women not to marry a farmer unless he installed water in his house as well as his byre. He thought it a fine idea to put it into his byre, but ‘why would you be bothered putting it into the kitchen – wasn’t she well fit to carry a few buckets?’ [was the] sort of attitude.”

The other necessity was electricity. In 1925 Ireland had 161 separate local electricity systems. In 1927 these were subsumed into the new State-owned Electricity Supply Board. Its success, embodied in the pioneering hydroelectric scheme at Ardnacrusha, on the River Shannon, led to the connection of 240,000 consumers by 1945.

But another 400,000 rural homes were without electricity. The huge postwar rural-electrification scheme, requiring the erection of a million poles and 120,000km of power lines, was one of the great achievements of independent Ireland.

Peter Sheridan, in his book 44: A Dublin Memoir, recalled the arrival of the washing machine in his working-class home at Seville Place: “It’s a dream machine . . . the housewife’s friend and more reliable than a husband.” The machine liberated women from the time-consuming, back-breaking drudgery of washing laundry by hand.

In the long term the contraceptive pill, though fully legalised in Ireland only in 1993, may have been more revolutionary. But the easing of the domestic burden was a key prelude to higher-profile changes in the status of women: the lifting (in 1973) of the “marriage bar” that forced women to leave public-service jobs when they married; the right to sit on juries (1976); share in the family home (1976); and be paid equally (1974).

There was, by the end of the 1970s, even the hope that washing machines might be of interest to men as well.

Where to see itIrish Agricultural Museum, Johnstown Castle Estate, Co Wexford, 053-9184671, irishagrimuseum.ie

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