Sunday, March 17, 2019

Space Age Suds: women, washing machines and the astronautics of everyday life

'Space Age Suds' is a charming and slightly alarming little vignette which is about the seeping of the Space Age into domestic life, machines and technology and how they structure social relationships, and gender roles in the Space Age. It's meant to be humorous, of course, but there is so much going on here!

The author isn't just anyone - it's beloved South Australian writer and journalist Max Fatchen. I found the article on Trove and now can't relocate it, but it seems likely it was published in the Advertiser, Adelaide's daily broadsheet. The date is a bit uncertain but it's clearly Apollo era.

I like that the Space Age reverses gender roles and that by the analogy of the washing machine with the space capsule, the wife is accorded the power of technology. After some searching I was able to find her first name but not her original surname, so we will have to call her Jean Fatchen here.

Because the image is a little fuzzy, here is the text.

Space Age Suds: the script

So the Russians are developing a low-orbital bomb. Well, it's just one more complicated space-age development, like our washing machine.

Our washing machine has a shape like a capsule and it is computer programmed and uncanny.

I was never much of a one with technology, and as a member of the avant garde laundry set, I'm all washed up.

There's no longer the simple meshing of gears as with our old washing machine. The cheerful days when I got my tie caught in the wrangler are past.

Our washing machine is automated in a cold, impersonal way, and my wife now calls herself a laundry technician.

She subscribes to advanced scientific journals, keeps up with the Apollo space project and runs off at the mouth on everything from transistors to laser beams.

I have been given the title of junior wash and garment line adherer, which means I hang out the clothes. I suppose I should be grateful.

Yet I dread washing mornings. I belong to a generation of boiling coppers and copper sticks, the hot sudsy smell of saturated sheets, and of bars of yellowed soap.

Now there's an air of bristling technology in the laundry, with split-second timing and ruthless efficiency.

"Load", my wife rasps. I stuff the clothes into the washing machine.

She consults her watch. "Four minutes to wash off," she says.

She looks at the console. "Close hatch," she orders. I shut the washing machine. She begins the countdown, "Five.....four.....three..."

"Look, dear," I interrupt, "I've forgotten a couple of my shirts...."

"Clear the complex", she says icily. "". She throws a switch.

I humbly take up my position.

"Motor running", I report.

Strange, uncanny sounds come from the interior of the machine.

'Hot water entering,' I chant, consulting my check sheet.

"All systems are go," says my wife.

I sit back and light a cigarette with clammy hands.

Time goes by. The washing machine murmurs, thumps, sighs and gurgles. Its programme goes its relentless way.

"Check machine and report," rasps my wife from the kitchen.

"Machine on course, entering spin-dry period," I say.

"Check systems," she says.

"Check, check, check," I cry. "Hoses running. Pump stops ... four...three...two"

"Clothes touch down, five minutes," says my wife. "Stand by."

"Machine spinning," I cry.

"Fire retro-rockets," she says absentmindedly.

At last the machine is silent.

My wife climbs to her feet.

"Open hatch!" she orders. "Alert clothes waggon".

She begins unloading the washing machine.

She lets out a shriek. "These clothes still look dirty".

"You didn't," she says, "put in the washing powder, did you?".

"Well," I bluster, insubordinate and defiant to the last, "this machine is supposed to think of everything. If it hasn't enough brains to use washing powder....."

"That's all," she snaps. "We'll have to do another orbit. Get the powder".

No, I haven't been on the moon but there are times when it sounds attractive!


So much to say about this little piece! I'm only going to scratch the surface here.

There's the idea that the Space Age changes how we do small domestic things on Earth: more like machines than messy humans. Both the wife and the washing machine are now operating as Space Age robots (it's a little bit Stepford Wives-ish tbh). It shows how the public interpreted the machine-human interfaces of space technology, down to checklists just like those that the Apollo astronauts used. It's also very cybernetic, getting status updates and adjusting the conditions.

The washing machine drum is a little gravity machine in itself, spinning like a space station or a centrifuge such those astronauts train in. Front loading washing machines with a glass porthole resemble spaceships too. 

The countdown has permeated into the domestic level: precision timing is the key to Space Age efficiency. As a domestic astronaut in her small domain, Jean has assumed power: she commands and Max obeys. She is a robot herself, icy and distant, intolerant of human foibles like forgetting a few shirts - and also the washing powder. (Thanks a bunch, Max. I would have been far more annoyed were I Jean).

The irony is that the power of astronaut Jean is illusory. While Max is pretending to help, he's actually demonstrating a typical trope of the inept male. He boasts about hanging out the clothes, but in this scenario, he forgets the washing powder and sits about smoking a casual ciggie (as people did in those days) while Jean multitasks, back in the kitchen. He finishes with that golden oldie, the nagging wife. It's a perfect illustration of the separate gender spheres of the 1960s, when women were excluded from being astronauts in the US.

'Fire retro rockets,' Jean says, absentmindedly. Doesn't this seem at odds with the ruthless robot housewife, all hard, streamlined efficiency? It took me a few reads before I realised what the subtle Max was implying with this sentence. She is absent-minded and talking about retro-rockets - which the washing machine does not have - because she is dreaming. Standing in her apron at the kitchen sink washing the breakfast dishes, while Max lounges around in the laundry, she is an astronaut. She is in command of a space mission, brave and true. The washing machine is as close as she can come to realising this dream. It makes me feel a little sad.

Once upon a time in France (well probably about 2005), I saw a washing machine advertisement in which a rather attractive nude man crouched in front of the washing machine's porthole, presumably waiting for the spin cycle to finish. The caption read 'One small step for man, one giant leap for women' or something to that effect in French: the idea was that is was a bloody big leap to get a bloke to do any housework, so nude dude's efforts at laundry were going to emancipate women and allow them to leave the house, even go to space! In effect, the effort involved in getting a man to do the laundry was equivalent to landing on the moon!

Gallery of Space Age Suds

As it turns out, there are quite a few connections between washing machines and the Space Age. Here's a small sample.

A space-age shop front in Sheffield, UK. Used with permission, from
Look at those rocket portholes lined up outside this charming shop!

A rental property in Carson City, NV, USA, was advertised with a Space Age Laundry!

From Freaking News,
This is a reference to the Apollo 13 mission.

Source: unknown
This advertisement from 1900 explicitly references the gravity of spinning.

I'm sure I could find many more examples if I kept searching. Le me know if you find any!

And I'd like to finish by saluting astronaut Jean Fatchen. Here she is with Max in 2004.

Jean, with Max. Picture: Grant NowellSource:adelaidenow