It’s been said that a few key innovations fostered the rise of civilization. A list of such inventions invariably includes the wheel, the lever and frozen pizza.
Those who think that these trifles deserve great credit are – borrowing a phrase often used by the Oxford Union Society– full of hooey. Without a doubt, the one item most responsible for nurturing modern civilization is the washing machine.
The first washing machines appeared in the Stone Age. They were quite crude and made entirely of stone. After all, it was the Stone Age.
Clothing was taken to any handy body of water where it was soaked then pounded with rocks. This wasn’t very efficient, especially when it came to eliminating stubborn stains.
“I can’t get this stubborn stain out of Og’s pants! I wish he’d never had that encounter with that sabertoothed tiger.”
“Wow! I didn’t know that Og killed a sabertoothed tiger.”
“I didn’t say he killed it. Just that he encountered one.”
Washing machine technology gradually advanced, eventually evolving into a system that involved a tub and a washboard. Using a washboard vigorously for several hours every day built up the abdominal muscles, which led to the expression washboard abs.
Washing machines have undergone innumerable changes over the years. The principal driving force behind this transformation has been women. This is because we guys tend to have dreadfully low standards when it comes to cleanliness. After all, it was a guy who invented the mountain man method of laundering.
In the spring of each year, your typical mountain man would tromp down from his alpine haunts to cash in his cache of furs. But many trading posts were located in or near towns, which meant the mountain man might be forced to interact with other humans.
Just look at his buckskins. They’re covered with dandruff from his pet badger and drool from his moose pal. The odor emanating from his clothing is a pungent reminder his unexpected encounter with a grizzly.
What’s a manly mountain man to do? Why, simply disrobe and toss his clothing onto a handy ant mound. While the ants perform their insect version of dry cleaning, the mountain man might even bathe in a nearby creek. Not that he needs it, mind you.
This attitude toward cleanliness is deeply ingrained in many guys’ psyche. It’s also diametrically opposed to most women’s attitude. In my experience, if a female were to examine a piece of clothing under an electron microscope and found a single molecule of dirt, the clothing would be declared filthy and immediately washed.
I felt sorry for my wife when our sons were young. Keeping things clean with two little boys running around the farm (she often said she had three boys, counting me) was a Sisyphean task. Our boys were fascinated by interesting pebbles and anything that crept or crawled. My wife soon learned to empty all pockets before doing the laundry. Otherwise, the washing machine might begin to emit strange noises that involved interesting pebbles or some unfortunate creature who was suffering from severe motion sickness.
I admit I was just as bad, although my wife would argue I was much worse.
It seemed as though my wife wanted to wash my manure-spattered coveralls every time I turned around. My attitude was that coveralls don’t need to be laundered until they remain standing after you take them off.
Better sense prevailed and my coveralls were washed much more often than I thought necessary. Even so, the water in the washing machine frequently became an icky sudsy slurry. A true hallmark of civilization is the sight and smell of a steam plume emanating from a clothes dryer. It’s a sign that many things are right with the world.
It means there is a ready supply of hot water. It means there is a plumbing system to deliver this hot water and carry away the wastewater. A particular aroma tells you somebody cared enough to buy laundry detergent that includes a pleasantly scented fabric softener.
But above all, it tells me my putrid pantaloons and my nasty knickers are coming clean. It also reminds me how my wife has taught me that a real man – a civilized man – does his own laundry.
    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works full time for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at jerry.n@dairystar.com.