If you’ve visited the Beall-Dawson House, you may have noticed that our special exhibits are given a relatively small space in which to exist.  You may also have noticed – though we try to disguise this fact – that our exhibit cases, panels, and other physical structures are limited, and somewhat restricting.  For our new exhibit (opening today!), we have far more gadgets, gizmos and clothing examples related to laundry than even I, queen of cram-as-much-in-there-as-possible, could fit. That’s where the blog comes in!  The first Wednesday of each month while the exhibit is up, I’ll highlight something laundry-related that could use a little extra storytelling, or that didn’t make it into the display at all.

DSC04115First up is this wooden washing machine, “The Complete Washer,” from the 1870s through the late 19th century. It measures ten inches high and two feet wide (at the bottom edge), and consists of one large upper and two small lower rollers, operated with a metal hand crank.  There are metal coils in the sides, to allow the top roller some play when clothes are passed through, and grooves cut into the bottom edge to help it fit securely into the washtub.  Each end is stenciled, “”The Complete Washer. Price $6.00.  Made by F.F. Adams, Erie, Pa.  Patented May 28, 1872.” (The paint has rubbed off somewhat, but here’s a clearer example in the Memorial Hall Museum collection.) That would be U.S. patent #127,204, granted on that date to George S. Walker and Frank F. Adams, inventors of an “improvement in washing-machines.” (Click the patent link to see a nice little cross-section of the machine in a washtub.)

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Though to modern eyes it looks more like (and is often cataloged as) a clothes wringer, details from contemporary descriptions show that it was indeed a washing machine, in the sense that the roller action was designed to clean fabric.  Rather than rubbing soapy fabric over a washboard by hand, you could run it through the ridged rollers a few (or many) times.  The patent description notes that the new system of grooved rollers “adds to the cleansing power of the machine,” and an 1890 advertisement claims, “It will fit any kind of tub and will do all kinds of washing with a savings of more than half the time and labor over the old rubbing process.”

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The Complete Washer was donated in the 1960s by Roger Brooke Farquhar, Jr., and although he did not supply us with a specific history, based on his donation track record we can presume that this handy machine was used at Rock Spring, his parents’ farm in Norbeck.  In our collections we also have his mother’s diaries, so we know that whenever possible, Carrie Farquhar – like so many other 19th century women who could afford it – hired someone else to do the laundry.  In the late 1880s, for example, Carrie names several African American women in the Norbeck area who either came to Rock Spring every Monday or received delivery of the Farquhar washing at their own home, including Lizzie King, Eliza Brown, Ida Williams, and Alice Snowden.  Carrie also mentions some weeks when circumstances required that she woman up and take on the dreaded washday herself.

Research on the Complete Washer brought up the question: If this was indeed owned by the Farquhar family, how did they acquire the machine?  An article on F.F. Adams & Co., manufacturers of wooden ware*, in “The Metal Worker: A Weekly Journal of the Stove, Tin, Plumbing, and House Furnishing Trades,” Vol. IV, No. 13 (1875) says that “these goods have been sold entirely through canvassing agents, in the same manner as sewing machines.”  A May 1890 advertisement in the woman’s magazine “Farm & Vineyard” (page 3) offered the “thoroughly tested” Complete Washer as a premium to any woman who recruited two new subscribers.   Did Carrie see a similar ad, and send in her friends’ names?  Did she buy it from a door to door salesman, or someone who set up shop in nearby Rockville or Sandy Spring?  Did she or her husband Roger make an impulse purchase from a storefront in Washington or Baltimore?

Laundry exhibit status: The Complete Washer did not make into the exhibit, though we have a more traditional clothes wringer on display, and several excerpts from Carrie Farquhar’s diary are also on view.

* FYI, the other specialities of F.F. Adams & Co. were “wringers, extension ladders, step ladders, clothes horses, towel rollers and kindred articles, to which they have lately added hardwood wainscoting.”  All but the washing machines were “sold through the trade.”

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