Technology in society and worldbuilding–an ode to the washing machine

In one of the free-access halls of the Art Gallery of New South Wales you can find this painting. It’s called The Widower, and was painted by Joseph Tisott in 1877. I cannot go to the Art Gallery without looking at this painting, and I cannot do so without tears in my eyes.

This painting encapsulates so much emotion. The little girl is happy; the father worries. The year is 1877. His wife has died leaving him to look after his children by himself. He works a back-breaking job on the land or doing some trade. He cannot stop work or work less to look after his children. There is no worker protection or insurance. There is no 9 to 5. There is no one to look after the children. If he doesn’t already know how to cook, sew or clean, he could learn to do this without a doubt, but, the thing is… merely doing the laundry is a major backbreaking task, and so is cooking and cleaning, and there is no time in the day for him to do this. Not while he is alone. He’ll need a housekeeper, or he’ll need to re-marry.

This post is not about gender issues. It is about how much technology has liberated us from doing menial tasks whose only function it is to keep ourselves fed and clean.

I read an article in the newspaper a while back that the greatest technological invention that has made the most profound difference on our daily lives is not the internet, or the car. It is the humble washing machine.

My paternal grandmother was born in 1897, and she grew up in a fairly backward place, where there was no electricity. Their pre-contraception household had 13 people, and doing the washing was a huge, hard and relentless task. They surely didn’t wash clothes as often as we do, but they did change one sheet on the bed every week, and washed, bleached and ironed all their clothes. Pre-electricity.

Our family has only five people, but the contraption I fear breaking down the most is the washing machine. At our place, I do the washing. If I had to hand-wash our clothes, or even half of them, I would spend a couple of hours a day doing this. I would have no time to work. Moreover, I would not be able to leave the house for more than a day, because my family, lovely and able as they all are, would not have this kind of time in their day to do this either.

So, consider that next time you design a low-technology world.

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10 comments on “Technology in society and worldbuilding–an ode to the washing machine

    • It was hard, and a lot of stuff you just accepted, stuff that we make a big fuss over today. When I see that type of fuss-making in low-tech fantasy, I always get a feeling that the writer wasn’t in the right frame of mind and too blinkered by our own comfortable lives.

  1. Great post – a terrific reminder of what times were like not so long ago! And an excellent point for writers. Those kind of details are easy to forget about.

  2. I lived without power for a while, we had a slow combustion stove to heat the water and to cook on, We had an open fire as well but we didnt have a chainsaw. It would take us all day to gather enough wood for 2 days burning. My husband and I were in our early twenties and fit and childless. We washed our clothes in the bath and it was a giant pain and took ages. When we moved to our current location, we lived in a converted bus and again lived without power for a while, but this time it was much harder as we had started our family and our daughter was three, the bus wasnt set up for power free living either, so we would light a fire outside and boil water in an old copper. I remember the joy I felt when I got my first twin tub washing machine, even though I didnt have running water and had to bucket the water into the machine. It was a WASHING MACHINE. yay. Twenty odd years down the track and I still remember how long we spent just on basic survival.

    • Exactly. It’s the time factor. You need at least two able adults just to do all the tasks necessary to survive and to look (and smell) respectable.

    • Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series showed quite well what such a life is like. And why people lived in large groups as much as possible. I remember one setting which very neatly answered the question “what do noble women do with their days?” answer: “made (and repaired) clothes”.

  3. Spot on Patty. Actually its this sort of thing that’s missing from the “Historically Accurate” and “Gritty” Game of Thrones more so the tv seris than the books.
    Lots of sexism and misogyny though 🙂

    • I’m afraid I’m not a GoT fan. I read one of the books. That was enough of that endless POV-switching-going-nowhere saga for me.

      You should read Joe Abercrombie.

      • Neither am I. I managed to finish book 2, but found that it was less a saga and more like an unending serial – perfect for TV adaptation.

        I have Joe’s books to read but am yet to get to that spot in the TB R pile 🙂

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