Old washing machines hardly sound like a retirement hobby, but once Lee Maxwell started collecting them, he just couldn’t stop buying more, even when his collection went over his wife’s imposed limit of 1,000.
On the first vacation he and his wife Barbara took after he retired, they were headed to Maine from their home in Eaton, Colorado, in a new motor home. They hadn’t gone far when he stopped and bought an old Maytag gasoline engine washing machine built in 1911, strapping the greasy contraption to the roof of the motor home.
With all that space on top of the motor home going to waste, the former electrical engineer and professor bought another old washing machine, and another, and another.
By now Barbara’s had serious concerns for both her formerly sane husband as well as the welfare of the motor home, so Lee put her mind at ease and purchased a trailer for his growing collection.
On their return trip home, now with 13 unrestored antique washing machines in tow, they were driving through Iowa when suddenly the frame of the trailer gave out, blowing the tires. But not to worry, Lee just bought a bigger trailer, and they were soon safely at home…but that’s not the end of the story.
That was 1986. Ten years later, Lee had accumulated 796 washing machines dating from the 1840s to the 1980s, and had earned his second mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. He now owns nearly 1,100 machines, but only admits to having 999, because he promised Barbara he would stop at 1,000.
He says it’s all her fault because their first machine, a 1920 Rue made in Amboy, Minnesota, came from Barbara’s aunt.
“Washing machines are mechanically very interesting,” the engineer reasons. “Once you start looking, you see an incredible amount of mechanism. They have an artistry of their own.”
One of his machines was built by the 1900 Company, which later became Whirlpool. It has a metal plate that reads, “Save women’s lives.” Lee borrowed that phrase for the title of his book on the history of washing machines, Save Women’s Lives — The First Ever History of Washing Machines.
“Some of those contraptions (with strong moving parts) were huge and dangerous,” he says. “It’s obvious OSHA wasn’t around.” Senior citizens who stop to see his collection have shown him the scars they received from their washing machines years ago.
Lee’s research uncovered more than 23,000 patents on washing machines between the late 1700s and the 1960s. There were as many as 1,200 companies in the U.S. making washing machines during the first two decades of the 20th century.
“Iowa was the washing machine capital of the world for a long time,” Lee says, adding that the Midwest and northern states are still the best “hunting grounds” for old machines. “Usually they are junk,” he says. “A lot of my machines came out of old junkyards and backyards.”
He admits they aren’t much to look at until he cleans them up. Driving home with a newly obtained machine, he has been teased on his CB radio by truckers who tell him he’s the only traveling junkyard they’ve ever seen. If they could only see that junk when he is finished with it.
“I tear them all apart,” he explains. “I don’t restore a machine, I just clean them up and repaint them. I keep them looking worn, but I do make them work, though not like new.”
Old grease is removed from cast iron parts by burning it off in a wood stove or pizza oven that heats evenly. Rust is them sandblasted off, and the part primed and painted before the machine is reassembled. On some, he paints the gearing red to be easily seen.
There are about a dozen serious collectors of old washing machines in the U.S., plus Maytag clubs, and some collectors of automatic washing machines. But it’s not enough to have a positive impact on the value of these antiques. Except for the rarest models, most old machines can be purchased for about $50.
“I tell people that my collection, as comprehensive as it is, is worthless and priceless in the same breath,” Lee says.
Today, at age 77, he’s more selective about the machines he buys, but is always interested in discovering different models and admits that he “trembles” when he learns of new ones he’s never heard of before. With his collection filling 15,000 square feet of space in his buildings, he is running out of room.
He’d love to see his collection find a permanent home. “I hate to see this part of our history go by the wayside,” Lee says. “I brought these machines to others’ attention,” he says. “I’m gratified in having some impact on the history.”
Searching for the oldest electric machine
Alva J. Fisher is credited with making the first electric washing machine in 1911. Lee Maxwell has his doubts about that. Small electric engines had been available well before the turn of the 20th century, and overworked housewives would have mandated the availability of electric washing machines.
A patent for a coffee roaster with an electric motor was granted in 1903, so surely there were electric washing machines before 1911, he reasons. His goal is to find a photo or illustration of the earliest electric washing machine. He would like to hear from anyone who can help in his search.
Early mechanical washing machines worked by using scrubbers, squeezers and agitators on dirty laundry in soapy water. The gyrator agitator system, like top-loaders in use now, was most popular after WWII, until the drum tumbling system (front loaders) were invented.
Lee’s pride and joy is an 1860 Torpedo, with a shape that resembles its name. It was made in England, and he found one on eBay that was mistakenly being sold as a whiskey still. Anyone interested in learning about an old machine they own, can type in the model name on his website (www.oldewash.com). The website includes virtual tour videos of the collection. While Lee does not do appraisals, he is interested in hearing from people with machines he does not have.
Lee’s collection may be seen by groups of 10 or more for a small fee by calling ahead, (970) 454-1856.
Article by Dee Goerge
Photos by Lee Maxwell