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Piece about a museum exhibit for the 'Events' section.

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Gadgets and Gizmos

How Coolerators and 'The Mangler' improved life for women

How much time do you spend doing housework? Probably not much. Like most people, you might take for granted the appliances that make cleaning a fairly speedy process. But this is a pretty recent development.

The exhibit at the Wilmette Historical Society, 100 Years of Household Gizmos and Gadgets, illustrates the little-known history of household appliances and the impact these developments had on women's lives.

In 1810, most American homes had only a fireplace, an outhouse, and candles, but by 1910, thousands of inventions, from indoor plumbing to electricity, had transformed those homes—and reduced the amount of back-breaking housework done by women.

These innovative items were also a boon to the American economy, for they needed to be manufactured, sold (via new direct mail companies like Sears and Montgomery Ward), and distributed to newly-created department stores. Visitors can see 100-year-old photos of the then-new Marshall Field's store in downtown Chicago, which depicts how opulent and grand these stores could be.

Everday items are also on display, such as early washing machines and the laundry pounder, a long wooden stick with a metal funnel at the end, that was used in a wash tub to pound out the dirt out of clothes.

The arduous process of laundry is detailed, a time-intensive process that could take up to three days each week: one day for washing and drying, one day for ironing, and one for mending clothes.

But time-consuming chores spurred innovation. For example, 19-year-old Mary Florence Potts designed an iron with a detachable handle, and with this invention, several heavy, leaf-shaped irons could be heated up on the stove at once, so one could pick up a new, hotter iron as the iron in use cooled down.

Progressive creations could be dangerous: gasoline-fueled irons that came later badly burned some women, and could kill if they exploded, which they sometimes did.

Visitors can see 'The Mangler,' an ironing device similar to the one Benjamin Franklin had in his home, that could also cause severe injuries.

For most women, though, the biggest triumph over drudgery was the sewing machine (a treadle-powered model is included in the exhibit), which could bring the production time for making a man's shirt down from 15 hours to one.

coolerator ad

Moving to the kitchen, the simplicity of some items might be surprising: an early toaster was a simple wire cylinder with four small 'shelves' for bread which was placed in the oven. A small butter-churner was simply a quart-sized glass jar with a paddle and handle attached to the lid. Many people churned their own butter through the 1930s, when commercial creameries made homemade butter obsolete.

Electricity was another modern convenience: the development of the electric refrigerator meant freedom from daily grocery shopping. Early-model electric mixmasters, vacuum cleaners and blenders made work faster and are on also display.

Some at the time believed that electricity had healing powers: the 'Violet Ray Generator' was a device that sent a spark into a tube filled with argon gas filling it with purple light. The tube was then rubbed on the skin, producing a tingly feeling which was thought to cure everything from hair loss to rheumatism.

Exhibit-goers will learn about the accidental invention of the microwave oven—and about some inventions that just didn't make it (like the combination sofa/bathtub). But the appliances, ads, and ephemera from this period are a testament to American ingenuity.

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The Comforts of Home: 100 Years of Household Gizmos and Gadgets is on view at the Wilmette Historical Museum, 609 Ridge Road. Hours are Tuesday and Thursday, 10-12 noon and 1-4 p.m.; and Wednesday and Sunday 1-4 p.m. Admission is free. (847) 853-7666.