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From farm implements to home convenience

Maytag is a home appliance giant now but it started out making farm implements

A corn husker that constantly broke down caused Frederick Maytag to vow to produce top-quality products, leading to the company's reputation for bulletproof designs like this early washing machine.

When you hear the name Maytag, do you remember your grandfather’s Maytag tractor? How about the family Maytag car or light truck? No? That could be because the company that began as a farm implement and vehicle manufacturer eventually focused solely on home appliances.

In 1893, Frederick Louis Maytag and three partners started the Parsons Band Cutter & Self-Feeder Co. By 1902, they were the world’s largest self-feeder manufacturer. As well, they made a short-lived tractor and a corn husker/shredder.

Most of us think of the Maytag man and reliable home appliances, not tractors and farm implements, when we hear the company's name. photo: Maytag

The much-proclaimed Maytag attitude about quality stems from the corn husker, ironically named Success. Of such poor quality, it required Maytag to make numerous trips to farmers’ fields for repairs. Due to this, he resolved that his future products would always be dependable.

Frederick Maytag originally saw home washing machines as a way to make money during periods of slow sales for farm equipment. By 1907, he had bought out his partners, changed the name to Maytag Washing Machine Company and built his first innovative washer. A hand crank forced the laundry against the ridged sides of the wooden tub — a radical improvement over what was available. By 1911, the company offered an electric version which freed homemakers from manual operation of the crank.

These early appliances weren’t really labour-saving devices by today’s standards, but did make the work a little easier. Washing previously involved either a stick or plunger to push laundry around the tub, a scrub board and a bar of soap. But hand or motor cranked, the tub still had to be filled. Few farms had an indoor pump. A trip outside to the well or pump meant hauling heavy buckets. Hot water required either a wood fire outside or a stove inside.

Then there was the back-breaking effort of wringing out the laundry before it could be hung to dry. Mechanical hand wringers had been around since the 1860s. Once power washers became available, the accompanying wringers were also powered and therefore quite dangerous as those with crushed hands and arms found out.

In the June 26, 1912 issue of The Grain Guide, women’s editor Francis Marion Beynon wrote an editorial (Five Valiant Servants Wanting Country Employee) promoting the merits of modern appliances to farm women. These were the gasoline stove, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet (built-in storage was not common) and the new power washer. Beynon seemed to ignore the fact that most farm women could not afford even one, let alone all five.

As well, an electric appliance would require a power plant at about an additional $400 installed. By comparison, the average cost of farmland in Manitoba in 1910 was only $28.94 per acre. (According to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, $400 in 1914 would be comparable to $8,432.79 in 2016.) For this reason, Maytag developed a version with a gas-driven engine in 1915.

Maytag continued to improve its product. In 1919, the company offered its first aluminum tub. In 1922, the Gyrofoam reduced wear and tear on clothes by being the first washer with an agitator at the bottom. With this, Maytag shot from the 38th largest U.S. washing machine manufacturer to first place and ceased selling farm implements.

The company came up with two more big innovations. The Maytag Meat Grinder attachment was advertised as being able to grind meat, nuts, fruit and relish at two lbs. per hour — horrendously slow by today’s standards, but life changing for homemakers at the time. To use it, the homemaker removed the wringer from the power washer and attached the grinder to the motor-driven shaft. To use the Maytag Butter Churn attachment, the operator removed the agitator from its shaft and dropped in the churn. These did not come as standard equipment with any machine, but were sold extra to fit certain models.

These days, when people hear the Maytag name, most think of the bored repairman in the TV commercials. “Ol’ Lonely,” as he came to be known, is the longest-running live ad character on television, turning 50 years old in 2017. He personifies the dependability Frederick Maytag was determined to provide his customers with all those years ago.

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