The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

Ma had an unusual washing machine way back in the very late forties, very early fifties. It replaced her old wringer washing machine, which, when she used it, I got to run wet stuff through the wringer. (I know now that she decided that a little risk where she could see me was better than letting me out of sight.) I would have been six or seven, I suppose, and I enjoyed the danger of it, danger she had to constantly remind me of. “Get your fingers in that wringer, it’ll pull’em right off!”

Now that’s how you keep a six-year-old occupied.

The unusual thing about the Westinghouse washing machine that replaced the wringer: It was a front loader. It was a front loader at a time in history when no other manufacturer was producing this design. Everyone else? Top loader. (It’s possible that laundromats–if there was such a thing in the early fifties–would have had front loaders. After all, all commercial washing machines had always been front loaders.) Ma likely viewed that Westinghouse as just another reminder that this truly was A New Era.

And it was A New Era–television, diesel tractors, refrigerators, freezers, Sputnik. And The Westinghouse.

Somewhere around the late fifties, that Westinghouse was nearing worn out. Some leaks in the drum. A bearing somewhere. By that time it was and had been washing the farm clothes of five people, and doing an excellent job at getting some really dirty clothing clean.

It finally bit the dust, and Ma bought a new Sears top loading washing machine, top loaders being the only thing available at that point in history. As I remember it, it was about 1958 when that new machine was delivered, and set up down in the basement.

I’m sure Ma was pretty excited. For one thing, no more bending down to get clothes in and out, since any front-loader is down on the floor a ways. For another, it was the fifties. Before I tell you what happened to those clothes, I have to point out that front loaders are really gentle on clothing. Pants and shirts and bedding actually just gently tumble themselves against one another, gently moving dirt out.

Top loaders of the era used an agitator with wings, driven by a gear case that clanked that agitator back and forth about 200 aggressive times a minute, really twisting and pulling and stressing clothing to get clean.

Ma took that first load of clothing out: All our shirts; all our bedding; everything that had been gently tumbled in the old front-loading Westinghouse for years was pulled apart. Rips everywhere. That fabric that had been gently tumbled into the thinness of old age couldn’t stand the stress of the agitator.

Boy, was ma upset. She gave that salesman an earful. And she mumbled about it for the next several years. At that point in time, money was hard to come by. Replacing stuff was not on her list.

I talked to a next door neighbor the other day. I had been working on a tractor, and my clothing looked it. He had apparently been doing the same, because he was even greasier and dirtier than I was.

“What do you wash your clothing in?” I asked him.

“A front loader washing machine. It gets them really clean.” he said.

Me? I found one of the old gear-drive agitator-from-hell machines. That’s what I use. I did it because the new top loaders have an agitator so worthless and anemic that it could rock a baby to sleep.

I’m sorry Ma isn’t still around. She’d have had a front loader. You can bet on it.