One bonus of the recent warm weather is that the washing gets dried quickly. As we set our automatic spin-cycle machines with the touch of a button it is easy to forget that doing the laundry wasn’t always so straight forward.
The Museum collection houses an array of paraphernalia related to laundry duties. As a compilation of objects they have a story all their own. There are coppers, boilers, vessels, washboards, sticks, laundry weights, a plethora of tubs, soaps, machines, mangles and wringers of all shapes, sizes and materials.
Amongst the washing machines there are variations of hand-crafted wooden tubs with legs; some with cast iron side wheels, bung holes and wooden stays for drainage; varying levers, cogs, handles and pump action pedals to mechanise the agitation process. There are slat boards, corrugated wood and assorted interior barrels. Many earlier varieties were hand-operated and as technology advanced along came a sundry of metal models, with accompanying cantankerous motors. As electricity became more prevalent in New Zealand households the early model electric machines with electric powered motors appeared, along with their electrical cords and rubber hoses, tin sieve-like cylinders, lids and exterior barrel drums.
Prior to the invention of the automatic spin-cycle machines, one of the most significant washing accoutrements was the fearsome wringer, or mangle. While these were used in very early mechanised washing procedures, the powered wringer seemed to have a life of its own. Injury by wringer became a common report, usually involving women and children. With two rolls pressed tightly together continuously turning with enough pressure to wring clothes dry, doing the weekly washing was a hazardous event! Wringers were dangerous to use and traps for the inattentive and unwary.
There are numerous documented reports of accidents and injuries including squashed fingers, hands, arms and elbows. Even breast injuries were sustained. In 1903 the Wanganui Chronicle reported a “shocking accident” with a wringer after which an arm needed amputating. In 1941 a death occurred when a woman’s scarf was caught in the rollers, causing her to be strangled. The New Zealand Medical Journal 1966 specifically reported on accidents and injuries sustained from wringer washing machines; they were seen as a “continuous threat”. So prevalent was that threat that manufacturing designs saw the development of trigger mechanisms to automatically disengage the pressure of the rollers if something bulky, such as a limb, began to enter.
Medical reports aside, one doesn’t need to ask afar to find somebody with a vivid recollection of an encounter with the infamous wringer rollers. Children were inherently warned and afraid of “the mangler”. There are many stories of not heeding caution which resulted in near misses, jamming, bruising, squashed fingers or the breaking of bones. Hands drawn in, rollers that would not stop turning, arms caught, cries for help, shrieking grandparents. Long hair caught and wound round the rollers making it impossible to untangle, which meant an ensuing bad haircut in order for the sufferer to be released.
Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.