Collecting Antique Washing Machines

Americana, History, Iconic Communities, Odd Collections, On the Road, People, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on November 1, 2011
Marc Piscotty Lee Maxwell with his collection of more than 1,400 vintage washing machines

The only time that Lee Maxwell attempted to wash his family's laundry, the white clothes came out of the machine looking pink, according to his wife, Barbara.

Even so, Maxwell, 81, knows as much about the inner workings of America's earliest washing machines as anyone in the world, having collected more than 1,400 vintage washers, most of which he's disassembled, cleaned, repaired and put back together on his farm in Eaton, Colo. (pop. 4,365).

"I like old things," Maxwell says of the uncommon collection he started in 1985, after retiring as an electrical engineering professor from Colorado State University. "I needed a hobby. I don't golf and I can't bungee jump."

Maxwell didn't set out to amass the world's largest washing machine collection, a Guinness World Record he earned in 2000. Barbara says his interest was lukewarm at best, even after her Aunt Agnes gave the couple an antique 1905 Rue washer in the mid-1970s.

During a road trip to Maine after retiring, however, he found himself curiously drawn to the vintage machines that he and Barbara found while rummaging through flea markets and antique stores. "By the time we got to Maine, I had three old washers strapped to the top of the RV," Maxwell recalls. "When we found four more in a barn owned by an antique dealer, I finally had to buy a utility trailer."

The couple returned home with 18 additional machines, and his quirky collection was born. "I think the thing that caught my fancy was the variety. Every machine was just so different," he explains.

During the next 25 years, Maxwell became America's foremost expert on vintage washing machines, even authoring a book on the history of the useful and ubiquitous appliance, which Maxwell says is among the most ignored segments of technology history today, despite its significant links to social development and women's rights.

"The washing machine is regularly listed as one of the world's 100 most important inventions, yet [my collection] is the only comprehensive history of the washing machine that exists," he says.

Maxwell says it's impossible to identify a single inventor, though theoretically electric motors could have powered washers before the Civil War. "There have been machines that assisted the clothes-washing process as long as there have been clothes," he says.

Though the machine's original inventor is a mystery, the idea of washing clothes without an old-fashioned washboard caught on quickly. During the early 1900s, more than 1,000 washing machine manufacturers were based in the United States. Today, only a few remain.

Maxwell stores most of his collection on his farm in a 20,000-square-foot building dubbed the Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum. The interior resembles an antique Laundromat, lined with rows of wooden- and steel-drummed machines, many with hand-cranked wringers and agitators powered by all kinds of mechanisms.

Manufactured by companies ranging from Acme to Zenith, the early contraptions demonstrate man's creative desire to make the laborious household chore easier and less time consuming. Among Maxwell's more peculiar machines are a washer designed to be powered by a goat on a treadmill and another that not only washes clothes but churns butter and grinds meat. One homespun machine, which sits on rockers and uses corncobs as drain plugs, was created in 1932 by a Minnesota man for his new bride.

Maxwell also maintains a website that features more than 3,000 washing machine photographs and magazine ads, a patents archive, and a library of maintenance and operator manuals.

Since none of his four children are interested in inheriting 1,400 washers, Maxwell is searching for someone to carry on the tradition. "I'd hate to see this collection end up in a junkyard," he says.

Indeed, while Maxwell views every machine as a treasure, he often feels alone in his mission, similar to the lonely repairman in the classic Maytag television commercials that began in 1967.

"Washing machines are the ugly ducklings of antiquity," Maxwell says. "You go to an antique shop and if they even have washing machines, they're usually gathering dust in the back."

Visitors to his museum find the appliances fascinating, though.

"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I first went to visit his collection 21 years ago," says Bill Gibson, 60, a fellow collector from Littleton, Colo. "At that time, he only had 185 machines."

"He promised he'd quit when he reached 500," says Barbara, 79, who helped him load and lug each of the machines, some weighing as much as 250 pounds, to their farm.

"We always joke that it would have been easier to collect something lighter," Maxwell says. "But it has been a marvelous experience. We've met so many people, had so much fun. I can't imagine a better hobby."