How to spot a need and fulfill it with a product

The story of Maytag’s gasoline-powered washing machine for an America without electricity

Who wants to do the laundry on Sunday — there will be no machines? Nobody will take up that offer, but clothes have to be washed, and for hundreds of years women did this tedious and tiring chore. Washing machines made life easy for some in the early-20th century, but they ran on electricity, and electricity was not available everywhere.

While US cities were being wired in the 1910s, life on farms continued the old way. One appliance maker, however, thought of a way to sell washing machines to ‘powerless’ rural America, and made a success of it.

That company was Maytag (@TheMaytagMan‏). Founded by an Iowa senator, it briefly tried making cars before focusing on the home appliances business. The brand is still around as part of Whirlpool Corporation (@WhirlpoolCorp). Maytag’s idea was simple — you need electricity not to wash clothes but to run a washing machine’s motor; what if the electric motor were replaced with a small gasoline engine?

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The result was Maytag Multi-Motor, a washing machine with a two-stroke engine mounted under the wash tub that could also power other appliances about the house — “the sewing machine, churn, ice cream freezer, food chopper, or anything else that requires power” — with its belt wheel.

Making a machine for farmhouses was easy, convincing farmers to buy it was a different matter. Washing machines were still a newfangled thing while petrol engines were disliked for their noise and smoke. They were also unreliable. Above all, there was the question of cost. Maytag’s popular electric washers cost $65 and could be run for “less than 2 cents per hour — your whole washing can be done for 6 cents.” The Multi-Motor machine cost 30% more at $80-$85. As for fuel, Maytag’s own optimistic claim was that “5 cents’ worth is enough for a family wash”.

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The engine itself would be an ecologist’s nightmare today, but it was engineered for dependability. Using an air-cooled two-stroke engine cut down on parts, costs, faults and weight. It also allowed the Multi-Motor to run on “gas, gasoline, kerosene or alcohol”. Knowing how much women dreaded hand-cranking an engine, Maytag fitted the washing machine with a simple kick-starter.

You will see how easily the Maytag is started by your foot. There is no dangerous cranking to do. You will be surprised at the ease with which it is operated and at the results it accomplishes,” says an ad for the machine.

In Maytag’s words, women could use it anywhere they liked, maybe under a tree outside home. “You can set it any place. In cellar or kitchen in winter, out on cool porch or under a tree in summer. Positively no danger. All moving parts enclosed. Any woman can operate it.”

Seriously, in the cellar? With a two-stroke engine pumping clouds of carbon monoxide!

Sweet talk alone would not have convinced farmers and their wives, so Maytag focused on demonstrations and even allowed people to use the machines at home for a month, for free. To convince buyers that they wouldn’t be stuck with a breakdown-prone machine, Maytag also gave a three-year guarantee on the Multi-Motor.

There were ads, of course: “Are your wash days without the rub, rub, rub? Why be burdened with wash days? Think of, and have your washing done by a machine — a machine that does all the hard work.”

Women were told: “Don’t waste your energy, your health, your strength — working like a slave on wash day, but get an easy-running, efficient, economical power-driven machine.”

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A Multi-Motor would “do a bigger, better washing in a few moments than you could do in a day’s time with the old-fashioned washboard and tub or a hand-powered washer.” And it did not require watching: “It never gets sick or ‘out of sorts’. It never falls down on the job. Never tears the clothes. Never fails to wash clean. Leaves no sloppy floors to be wiped up.”

Some ads talked to women in the tone of an endorsement: “Monday (washday) used to put dread into the Sunday before and drag into the days following. But now the ease of the work and the interest in the operation of this wonderful Multi-Motor Washer gives to Monday pleasant anticipations and to the whole week a better spirit of family life.”

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Other ads addressed the chivalrous side of men: “A Maytag washer in your home on Christmas Day will prove a gift of lasting satisfaction. This sensible gift will prove its worth to you as it has done to thousands, 52 times a year for many years to come.”

Sometimes, freebies were thrown in too, like a $3 clothes basket that would have pleased the missus very much.

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The Multi-Motor washing machine was sold for decades, and died out only when all of America got electrified. Check out this delightful Facebook page devoted to Multi-Motor engines.

And here’s a video of a Maytag Multi-Motor washing machine in action.

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