Never in the history of housework can so much have been owed by so many to a single device. That device is the washing machine.
At primary school we were made to sing a song that began with the abbreviation 'twas, and went downhill from here. The song was about laundry.
"Twas on a Monday morning," it began, "when I beheld my darling" and what his darling was doing was "washing of the linen o" (The o was never explained.)
On Tuesday he watched her rinsing of the linen o, on Wednesday wringing of it, Thursday pegging of it, Friday ironing of it, etc (though I may not have the sequence right, having generally sunk into a coma of indifference around Wednesday and woken up to find it was morning playtime which came with a third of a pint of fresh milk nicely warmed from sitting in the sun.
The point of the song was supposed to be the love angle but there is far more truth to be found in the laundry angle. The business of cleaning and drying the linen takes a week, at the end of which the whole shebang starts over with another soiled heap.
Here is the life of the laundry maid and her endless cycle of work. The pile of linen in need of washing constantly replenishes itself, like Prometheus' liver.
And such arduous laundry work remains within living memory: boiling the copper, stirring the cauldron, rinsing and mangling, rinsing and mangling, a vast expense of time and labour, merely to keep cleanish.
In poor countries it is still thus. The women - it is always the women - gather at communal washhouses or the local river bed to rub and scrub and roll and squeeze and slap their linen and make a picturesque scene of toiling peasantry for us first worlders to photograph. Laundry is and always has been hard labour, unless you've got a washing machine.
I've just turned mine on with the push of two buttons. Lifting the lid to add an errant sock, I paused to watch the thing at work. It was mesmeric. Hot and cold water entered from above while the bowl circled to soak the clothes evenly.
Every so often the central pillar shuddered to ensure there were no islands of dry cloth or undissolved detergent, and sometimes the machine would pause, presumably to measure water levels and temperature and such, and during the pause you could sense the thing thinking. I've taught less intelligent children.
Then it paused for a final time, decided it had things as it wanted them and with an urgent lurch it went to work washing. Here was the labour of the laundry maid's arms, of the housewife's scrubbing and beating, of the gypsy woman's slapping against river rocks, performed by rubbery flaps and a slowly rotating drum.
The clothes rolled over and under each other and were gently cudgelled and you could actually see them letting go of what they harboured, the sourness and the sweat, the dirt and exudations. The water turned grey with the essence of my flesh. It became eau de moi.
And thus the washing machine demonstrates that as well as being a device to save time and labour, a blessed convenience, a splendid machine, it is also something more, something symbolic. It's a religious implement. Hear me out.
Every faith has its rituals of cleansing, both literal and metaphorical. Think of fonts and baptisms, and stoups of holy water, and dunking in the Ganges, and the taps outside mosques.
Think of the confessional. We have a psychic need of cleansing, of ridding ourselves of, well, ourselves. Of laving the flesh and of laving the soul. For we sin and we soil things. And every pile of clean washing is a chance to start again.
Our clothes are a barrier between us and the weather but at the same time they're a disguise. They conceal the poor bare forked animal and present a different skin to the world.
But in doing so they take on our effluvia, our excretions and excrescences, our animal essence. They become rank with the truth of us, with our kinship with the beasts of the field.
We hate to acknowledge our kinship with the beasts of the field. We see ourselves as a thing apart, and smelling of nothing, as the angels do. Hence the value of washing machines. They take the effort out of self-delusion.