How washers and dryers became trophy appliances

A McLean doctor called Washington’s M&M Appliances a few years ago and ordered a special Valentine’s Day gift for his wife: An LG high efficiency front-loading washer-dryer pair in lipstick red.

“He wanted something very special,” says Michael Greenwald, owner of M&M.

When did washing machines and dryers turn into bling? It probably started about 12 years ago, when the front-loading machine with its energy and money-saving features, sleek style and technological upgrades started hitting appliance departments.

European-style front loaders had been available in America for years, says Carolyn Forte, director of home care at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. But they were not popular because Americans have always loved big-capacity top loaders and didn’t want to have to bend down to put in their laundry. Who can blame them? The average American family washes 400 loads of laundry per year, according to government research.

In the 1990s, standards for home appliances continued to change. According to J. B. Hoyt, Whirlpool’s director of government relations, manufacturers worked with EPA and DOE to usher in the Energy Star program that identifies and labels energy-efficient products including washing machines. As consumers became more conscious of saving water and power, the high-efficiency (HE) front-loading washer as retooled for the American market started taking off.

“Our manufacturers took the European configuration and developed it and made it bigger,” Forte says. They also added pedestals (usually with a drawer in them) to raise up the washers and dryers and make the laundry process less backbreaking for the American consumer.

By 2000, the power laundry room had joined the kitchen as another place for trophy appliances. Consumers who needed to replace old washers embraced the innovations, despite the higher price, realizing long-term savings from lower utility and water bills, better cleaning and improved fabric care. The streamlined washing machines had growing numbers of special cycles and options. You could buy a coordinating dryer that used moisture sensors to dry clothes that came out already less wet from HE washers.

Manufacturers continue to add features to their lineups of washing machines, including HE front loaders, HE top loaders and traditional top loaders. Dryers are being tricked out with steam cycles that gently remove wrinkles or sanitizing options that can kill germs. Machine colors continually change: They are available in colors such as granite, marine blue or platinum to match the wallpaper or the Mercedes.

In the future, look for developments on the smart-grid front, says Todd Bleckley, Lowe’s merchandising director for laundry appliances. Potentially, appliances will be able to communicate with utility companies to take advantage of off-peak rates and save energy and money. Utility companies and manufacturers are working, Bleckley says, to coordinate the technology to make this happen.

Read our Handy Guide on the next two pages to learn about the latest features in washers and dryers and what you should look for if you are in the market to buy one.

The rise of the machines

The washing machine is an appliance that 21st-century consumers take for granted, according to Susan Strasser, a University of Delaware American history professor and author of “Never Done: A History of American Housework.”

She says early versions of the washing machine in the late 19th century were made of half barrels with hand-operated agitators. With no running water, you had to haul water to them for washing and rinsing. The washer evolved and by the 1950s, it was pretty standard in American middle-class homes.

“The washing machine freed the housewife from the worst aspects of what everyone said was the worst job of housework,” Strasser says. “Mondays used to be the standard laundry day, and it could take all day. Now, we can throw a load of laundry in and do whatever else we want.”

The rise of the machines

The washing machine is an appliance that 21st-century consumers take for granted, according to Susan Strasser, a University of Delaware American history professor and author of “Never Done: A History of American Housework.”

She says early versions of the washing machine in the late 19th century were made of half barrels with hand-operated agitators. With no running water, you had to haul water to them for washing and rinsing. The washer evolved and by the 1950s, it was pretty standard in American middle-class homes.

“The washing machine freed the housewife from the worst aspects of what everyone said was the worst job of housework,” Strasser says. “Mondays used to be the standard laundry day, and it could take all day. Now, we can throw a load of laundry in and do whatever else we want.”

The home and design coverage of Jura Koncius has taken her inside hundreds of homes, from tiny studios in Penn Quarter to country castles in Warrenton. Jura also hosts the Home Front live chat, Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.

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