Museum of Ethnography
H-1146, Budapest, Dózsa György út 35.
Phone: +36 1 474 2100
Text: Zsuzsa Szarvas
Photo: Krisztina Sarnyai
What, one might ask, is a washing machine doing in the Museum of Ethnography? For the context in question, wouldn’t a more old-fashioned device serve better? A mangling board perhaps: one of those hand-carved and frequently decorated rectangular or trapezoidal paddles once used to mechanically beat clothing in natural waters? After all, mangling boards—an invention that entered rural life in the 17th century and by the early 19th century, had spread throughout Europe—abound in the museum’s collection. Washing machines, on the other hand, are represented by this single example, and for that matter, were typical not of the traditional peasant environment, but the urban or urbanised households from the early 20th century onward. This antecedent of today’s machines, the hand cranked wash tub with internal paddle, first appeared in the mid-19th century, followed by similar technologies that endured into the mid-20th century. It was then, of course, that the truly mechanised, electrical power-driven washing machines came along and replaced both the mangling board, and the various hand-cranked contraptions.
Hungary, second half of the 19th century. Collected by Vera Schleicher NM. 2019.99.4
Of course, the washing machine was not the only manually driven labour-saving device to make its way into (primarily) urban households. Others included the clothes wringer, used to reduce wrinkles in one’s freshly washed laundry, the pedal-driven or, in some cases, hand-cranked sewing machine, and the manual coffee grinder.
The hand-crank machine shown here entered the museum’s collection in the autumn of 2018, as a gift from Mrs. Lóránt Pálmay, who was 88 years old at the time. The machine had belonged to her grandparents, who moved from Graz to the Tisztviselőtelep quarter of Budapest’s Józsefváros in 1891. Her grandfather would eventually work as a senior engineer at the city’s famed Ganz Works. Although family tradition held that the washing machine had been brought with them from Austria, according to the inscription on the lid, it was made in Budapest as a product of the Geittner and Rausch ironmongery. The company had several depots in the capital and sold a wide range of innovative products.
Washing machines operating on a similar principle were widespread even among Hungarian households during the early decades of the 20th century, at least where there was a kitchen (with a built-in stove) or laundry room large enough to house one. According to the donor, this particular machine was used in the family kitchen until as late as the 1950s, though in its latter years, it served only for washing bed linens and tablecloths. Water for the machine was heated on the stove, then poured into the drum over the pre-loaded linens, which were then churned in the boiling water as the machine was cranked by hand.
The hand-driven washing machine is, in many respects, a transitional device: a transition between manual and mechanised labour, between a simple laundry aid and a machine that foregoes human intervention entirely, between the mangling board and the automatic (or at least electrically powered) machine. There is one thing, however, that all of these washing devices had in common: they were all used by women.
Can there be any real question then that this piece belongs in the Museum of Ethnography?