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Powering the American Dream With The Maytag Multi-Motor: Now We're Washing With Gas!

Posted on 23 May 2015


For most Americans in the 19th century, doing laundry was a bummer. Sure, waiting at the laundromat can be tedious, but consider the process of washing your threads before the modern era:

1. Go out to the wood pile and chop wood, or haul coal up from the basement.
2. Start a fire in the stove and wait for it to heat up.
3. Go to the well or pump and get water. 
4. Heat up water on stove.
5. Pour hot water into a big cauldron or tub.
6. Add your dirty laundry and agitate it violently with a paddle, or rub it against a corrugated washboard by hand. 
7. Wring out the clothing in your hand crank wringer. If you do not have a hand crank wringer, then beat the clothing against a board or a rock. 
8. Hang to dry. 

What a bummer. This is exactly why by the turn of the 19th century countless inventors were coming up with all kinds of schemes and contraptions to aid in the laundering process. The 1902 Sears Roebuck catalog offered a number of complicated options such as The Acme Combination Washer, The Genuine Scott's Western Washer, and the ominous but appropriately named Universal Mangle. The thing that all of these gadgets had in common was the power source, which of course would be the user (or laundree?). Some machines worked off of a crank, some worked off of a ratcheting lever worked back and fourth, and some worked by spinning a torpedo shaped drum by hand. 

Perhaps these machines did a more thorough job of washing clothes, but they seem to have taken the same amount if not more effort than the fully manual method. It's also easy to imagine losing a few digits to these contraptions as the washing drums wobbled and jerked about.

By about 1905 washing machine manufacturers started catching on to the idea that if their washing machines were going to do well with the public, they would actually have to make life easier. As a result, designers of washers began putting pulleys on the outside of the washers so they could be powered by a belt attached to farm engines, tractors, or windmills. By 1911 Maytag released their first electric washing machine. Revolutionary, but the electric washer could also only be used by those with access to electricity. Rural washing machine users still had to turn their cranks themselves. 

By 1915 farm engines were already popular. These were stationary engines powered by gasoline, diesel, and increasingly less, steam. One engine would often be used to perform a number of tasks, from pumping water, to running grain mills. Maytag had the brilliant idea of making a miniature version to power their washing machines. It was dubbed The Maytag Multi-Motor, and it would soon earn the multi in its name. 
Here is a 1917 Multi Motor in on a washer. This thing is a baby mangler for sure.

The Maytag engines were quickly adapted to do many chores around the house aside from powering washing machines. They were attached to grain mills, garden tractors, generators, water pumps before plumbing was readily available, lawn mowers, go carts (some actually made by Maytag), generators worn as backpacks by soldiers, ice cream makers, and a number of other devices. 
It's easy to overlook the importance of small engines now, with our plentiful electricity and heavily developed consumer goods, but the Multi-Motor played an important role in the modernization of many households. Many American households were in a transitional period from the turn of the century up until the late 50's. In some parts of the country electricity and plumbing were slow to come, and the Multi-Motor eased some inconveniences of rural life. 
By the 1950's most of the demand for the Multi-Motor had tapered off. Those who were buying washing machines rarely lived without electricity, and Maytag had stiff competition from other manufacturers such as Briggs and Stratton in the field of small engines. Americans were much more in need of refrigerators and dish washers, and had less use for small, heavy, stinky little gas engines. 
The age of usefulness came to an end for the Multi-Motor, whose production wrapped up in the 50's, but its impact was indelible. It brought modern convenience to many American households before they had access to the resources and power we take for granted now. It can be viewed as a piece of transitional technology, groundbreaking for its time. For many people, buying a Maytag Multi-Motor was a first step towards a modern way of living. 

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