From housewives' aid to collectors' delight


September 13, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Some collections fit neatly in a curio cabinet. Not Lee Maxwell's. His hoard fills two large buildings in Eaton, Colo., 40 miles south of Cheyenne, Wyo. "They are magnificent things; I delight in putting them together and find it interesting how they evolved," says Mr. Maxwell, a retired electrical engineering professor, about his 325 vintage washing machines. "I'm 62 now and hope to have 750 washers before I'm through." By collecting and restoring old washers, he is putting a new spin on run-down appliances that most people send to the dump.

Washers display some of America's finest technological innovations and are a window on past domestic life. "In 1920 there were between 150 and 200 companies making washing machines, and by 1940 that number had dropped to 50," according to Orville Butler, a specialist in the historical study of science and technology at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, who has served as an archivist for the Maytag Co. in nearby Newton, Iowa.

One remarkable early 20th century washer was driven by a goat, according to Mr. Maxwell, while others operated by foot or hand power, and some were attached to the garden hose and propelled by water pressure. Most employed electric or gasoline motors.

Maytag's "Multi-Motor" washer, with a gasoline-powered engine, introduced in 1914, was a boon to rural homemakers without electricity, and is a favorite among collectors. It was an all-purpose device with lots of attachments. In the summer farmers used its engine for outdoor chores; the rest of the year it doubled as a clothes wringer, meat grinder, butter churn, dishwasher, cream separator, and in the 1930s, as a light generator. Today the grinder alone can fetch at least $250, the butter churn about $150, and the 27 different engine models range from $20 to $3,000.

'Traveling junk yard'

Mr. Maxwell bought his first three washers in 1985 during a visit to Maine. Now he takes washer-hunting trips all over the country, paying an average of $50 to $60 a machine. "We have a motor home and a big trailer -- it's a traveling junk yard," he said. The highest price he ever paid for a washer is $350, for a circa 1910 copper and brass electric "rocker" with the name "Judd Chicago/New York" printed on its lid. "The expense is in finding the piece; there's no real market yet for the big old monsters. I bring them home and tear them down to the last screw and build them up again," he said.

Charles Diehl, 35, of Baltimore, who works in the radiology department of Johns Hopkins Hospital, also is passionate about washing machines, collecting wringers, automatic models, top and front loaders, toy washers, and salt and pepper shakers shaped like washers. Since childhood, he has been fascinated by the way they clean something dirty. He also likes their advertising slogans, and collects washer ephemera. Mr. Diehl does his shopping in East Baltimore, paying around $10 for most washers, and as much as $50 for ones in like-new condition.

'How Dry I Am'

Thomas Stiyer and John Lefever, collectors in Beltsville, favor washers they remember from their youth, including the one-piece front-loading washer-dryer combos from the late 1950s and early 1960s, with a window that showed the laundry going through all the cycles. Mr. Stiyer moved into a bigger house down the street from Mr. Lefever, so he could store part of their collection in the basement. He vividly describes how early Bendix models need to be bolted down, otherwise they "walk across the floor" during the spin cycle because they lack suspension mechanisms. Mr. Lefever has a 1955 Westinghouse dryer with a chime box that plays "How Dry I Am" when the clothes are ready.

The greatest demand is for early Maytag washers and memorabilia, fueled in part by an active collectors' club founded by Nate Stoller of Ripon, Calif. Maytag began in 1893, producing farm threshing equipment attachments and briefly making automobiles. In 1907 it marketed the country's first truly effective washing machine, the "Pastime" model, partly as a seasonal sideline to offset slumps in the farm equipment business. The Pastime had a cypress wood tub and was operated by a hand crank which turned a flywheel under the lid; advertisements proclaimed it "So simple a child could do it."

Cranking caused four wood pegs attached to the Pastime's flywheel (resembling a milk stool) to pull the clothes through the water and against the tub's corrugated sides, cleaning the fabric in the process. Although still requiring strenuous labor, the primitive washers made by Maytag and its competitors were a big improvement over washboard drudgery. Although he has never found one for sale, Mr. Maxwell guesses that a Pastime in perfect condition could bring about $500, "but only $50 in beat-up condition."

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