The Rise of the Electric Home Appliance

From the ancient Egyptians to Benjamin Franklin and the early inventions of Thomas Edison, the discovery and manipulation of electricity opened new doors for humanity to walk through. Revolutionizing everything from how people illuminated their homes to the invention of new home appliances, the early 20th century saw a rise in the creation of tools, devices and gadgets that changed the way people performed household tasks. Each of the following electric home appliances were created as efficient and time saving devices that replaced outdated methods of performing chores. This guide will explore home appliances as they were developed as well as take a closer look at the methods used to perform those specific tasks prior to each invention.

The Electric Clothes Washer

Controversy surrounds the inventor of the electric clothes washer but the earliest photo evidence shows a picture of a woman sitting by a “Nineteen Hundred Company” washing machine that included an electric motor in the November 1906-April 1907 issue of “Cassier’s Magazine.”  The story was printed several years before Alva J. Fisher took out US patent 966677 on April 9, 1910 for an electric washing machine. Due to Fisher’s patent, many credit Fisher as being the original inventor, however, the earliest inventors remain unknown. Alva Fisher is credited, however, with creating an electric washing machine in 1916. By 1922, Maytag Corporation had invented a washing machine with an agitator. 

Prior to electricity’s discovery and indoor plumbing, laundry was performed by hand or with washboards. Many would take their laundry to rivers, lakes and streams and use ashes or plant materials as soaps. The early Romans, after mastering aqueducts, would use water that had been collected to wash clothes by hand. During the Middle Ages, lye soaps, white clay or fuller’s earth was used to perform washing tasks that often took place in large tubs. Soap continued to be manufactured throughout the 18th century, and by the 19th century, washing machines had advanced from buckets to closed tubs that had wooden paddles and agitators. Those methods received a new upgrade once electricity was used to devise an automatic washing machine. During the 1920s, electric washing machines were on a fast track to finding their way to American homes as more than two thirds of all U.S. homes were equipped with electricity.

A look at the early history of electric washing machines and patents

The history of washing from prehistoric times to 2008

Collection of newspapers, photos and articles regarding early inventions including the electric washing machine

Electric Refrigerator

It’s hard to imagine life without electric refrigeration. Refrigerators and freezers are extremely important, not only for the maintaining of foods’ flavor, but also for safety. Without proper refrigeration and food storage at correct temperatures, food is vulnerable to overgrowth of harmful bacteria. There was a time, however, when man did not have electricity, refrigeration or freezers and relied upon the natural environment and winter months in order to store food.

The ancient Chinese and Romans used snow and ice as refrigeration materials. By the early 19th century, people worldwide would use a variety of early refrigeration methods. Sometimes food would be placed in a bucket then put in a cool river or lake. Cellars would be used to store canned foods that would keep in cool temperatures. Other foods were preserved through other method such as canning, drying and smoking.

 Ice was a hard commodity to come by, especially in the early 19th century. It wasn’t until German breweries began to make their way into the United States in the middle of the 19th century that the demand for refrigeration became realized. One of the earliest refrigeration devices was used by the S. Liebmann’s Sons Brewing Company in New York in 1870. Soon other breweries were instituting refrigeration and soon the meat industry and other businesses followed. Refrigeration then made its way to railroad cars where it was used to transport goods. By the 1920s, refrigerators were in many U.S. homes.

Tracing the history of refrigeration from the 11th century to the 20th century

Photos of early ice boxes and refrigerators

An overview of the history of refrigeration including early photos and diagrams

Electric Iron

It may seem that ironing must have been invented with the electric iron but in fact, people have been pressing wrinkles from their clothing for centuries.  Ironing traces back to 800 A.D., when people used items such as stones, glass or bones in order to press and remove wrinkles from their clothing. By the Middle Ages, mangle boards were used as both board and iron to flatten materials. The wood boards were used with a rolling pin where wet clothing would be placed then rolled until the desired shape was achieved. After the rolling, the clothing would be set to dry. 

Also popular in Europe during the Middle Ages were flat, smoothing or sad irons. These were crafted from iron and would be placed on a stove or open fire until thoroughly heated.

After the creation of sad irons, the idea came to make box or charcoal irons. These were designed to retain heat by allowing the bottom portion of the iron to open. Hot coals would be placed inside the iron allowing for greater use and benefit.

Following the invention of charcoal irons were gas irons. These were equipped with tubes that would attach the iron to gas sources for heat. Though several electric iron models were in the works, it was Henry W. Seely who patented an electric iron in 1882. By the 20th century, electric irons were in high demand, however, charcoal irons remain a popular choice in countries where electricity is limited.

A look at antique irons with photos

A look at irons before and after electricity

Antique and vintage irons with photos

Electric Waffle-Iron

Though many associate waffles with modern day slogans such as “Leggo my Eggo,” waffles actually have a long history. Dating back to the ancient Greeks, the earliest known forms of waffles were called obelios and were cooked by placing flour and water between two hot plates. Over the years waffle making spread throughout Europe and soon the delicious food made its way to the United States aboard the Mayflower. By the time electricity became a household staple, many waffle fanciers chose to use the new, easier appliance for creating their pastries then using hot plates. The first electric waffle maker was created in 1906 by the Simplex Electric Heating Company. By 1911, General Electric created a prototype, but it wasn’t until 1918, that the first waffle irons, similar to their modern day counterparts were created.

Book by William George with photos showing antique electric waffle irons

1928 Patent for Electric Waffle Iron

Profile of waffle irons throughout history with photos


Before electric vacuum cleaners, rugs were taken outside and beaten with broomsticks, rods or any large item that could successfully shake dust, dirt and debris from the carpet. Unlike many other household appliances, the vacuum didn’t have many early prototypes, save for various mechanical brooms.  Though it is unclear when the first vacuum prototype was created, it wasn’t until William Hoover purchased rights to a patent after a man named Murray Spangler had created an electric model to help with his allergies that the electrical vacuum cleaner made its way to U.S. homes. Some of the earliest vacuums were so large they required teams of people to operate them.

A look at the history of vacuum devices with illustrations

A look at the eclectic vacuum and its societal impact

Profiles of early vacuum prototypes and early models with photos

Electric Blender

Stephen J. Poplawski is credited with making the first electric blender in 1922. The blender was used for milk shakes and malts and became popular in soda fountains across the country. In 1932, Poplawski expanded his operation by expanding the tasks the blender could perform, by developing a blender that could transform fruits and vegetables into liquid form.

Before Poplawski’s invention, many were left to utilizing their own techniques for blending or pureeing foods. Many of these consisted of simply smashing or mashing food with a knife or spoon. The blender’s predecessor was the electric mixer.

This includes a brief History of the Electric Blender

At Home 1920: Objects: Electrical Appliances

Kitchen history throughout the ages

Electric Kettle

Before the discovery of electricity there were several methods used for heating water; each of which involved an external heat source. From fires to charcoals and gas; those in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had limited options when it came to choosing heat sources for boiling water. With the advent of the 19th and 20st century came electricity and soon, electric kettles were introduced to household families. The first electric kettle was invented in 1894 by Carpenter Electric Company and quickly grew in popularity. Due to their inexpensiveness and usefulness, many U.S. homes quickly added electric kettles to their home appliances.

Electric Kettles by the Musium of Science and Industry

Photos of vintage electrical equipment and appliances

Spin Dryer

In the early 1920s, more than 80% of U.S. households had electricity and many were equipped with a washing machine. In 1924, the Savage Arms Corporation of New York created the first spin dryer. Different from a tumble dryer, these machines would spin clothes in order to reduce excess water. Prior to their invention, many would use their washing machines then wring out the clothing before placing it out to dry. 

As front loading washing machines became more popular throughout the nation, so too did the need for an effective system that would dry clothes. The 1924 spin dryer became an important tool used to remove excess water from clothes causing them to dry more quickly and efficiently.

Book reveals various inventions that have shaped modern society

How using a spin dryer can help you save energy

Pop-Up Toaster

Man has been toasting bread for centuries as the practice traces its roots back to Ancient Rome where bread was placed on a toasting fork then held over an open fire.  Many devices were used over the centuries in order to find the most effective toasting methods, including hinged bread holders and forks designed to hold more than one slice of bread at a time. It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century those inventors perfected their designs and took out various patents. In 1919, Charles Strite invented the pop up toaster and took out a patent. Pop up toasters soon began popping up in homes across the nation as America indulged in its long time relationship with toasted bread.

An overview of the history of toasters

A look at toasters from the ancient toasting fork to modern day devices

Garbage Disposal

By the 20th century, American homes were equipped with electricity and were connected to the sewer system. There was great concern regarding the impact food waste would have on the sewer system while one inventor was working on an electric means of dealing with waste: the garbage disposal.  John W. Hammes invented the garbage disposal in 1927, but didn’t take out a U.S. patent on the device until 1935. Hammes later said that he invented the machine to help his wife perform housework chores simpler and more efficiently. 

Before Hammes invention, garbage was thrown away in cans and there were no other methods used for instantaneously eradication of waste. Hammes not only invented the garbage disposal, but he also invented a new industry.

An overview on the first garbage disposal

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