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Cleaning through the ages

Story highlights

  • Based on ancient pottery, the Babylonians used soap
  • Before vacuum cleaners, grass was used to sweep carpets
  • Lysol was once advertised as a birth control method

2800 B.C.: Soaplike residue found clinging to the insides of clay vessels dating from this era proves that the ancient Babylonians had soap. And soap scum.

1500s: In Scotland, stale human urine is used as a cleaning agent for laundry. (They don't tell you that in all those Scottish Highlander romance novels.)

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1782: Henry Sidgier is awarded the first British patent for a washing machine that uses a rotating drum. It features a cage with a handle for turning clothes. Inside, wooden rods toss the laundry to and fro.

1856: The how-to book "Enquire Within Upon Everything" advises: "Persons who are accustomed to use tea leaves for sweeping their carpets, and find that they leave stains, will do well to employ fresh cut grass instead."

1886: A typical day for an American housewife includes 8 to 10 trips to the local water source. (It takes 50 gallons to do a single load of laundry!) That's nearly 11 tons of water hauled per year.

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    1886: Josephine Cochran of Shelbyville, Illinois, irked that the servants chip her fine china in the sink (darn servants!), designs the first dishwasher, a motorized machine with racks that hold dishes in place as soapy water shoots from below. It later makes a splash at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

    1907: The Scott Paper Company introduces the first paper towels, designed to help prevent the spread of cold germs from cloth towels in public restrooms (eek!).

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    1912: Lysol comes to America from Germany. It's soon advertised as a way to halt the Spanish-influenza epidemic. It's also promoted as a birth-control method and a feminine-hygiene product. Handy!

    1913: Five California businessmen invest $100 each to found America's first commercial liquid-bleach factory, using brine extracted from salt ponds. With sodium hypochlorite as its main ingredient, the product is dubbed Clorox. The business takes off when one investor's wife starts giving away free samples at her family's Oakland grocery store to cultivate customer loyalty.

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    1918: The Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog advertises "Aids That Every Woman Appreciates," featuring a home motor that can operate a fan, a sewing machine, a mixer, and even a vibrator (OMG).

    1933: Proctor & Gamble advertises Oxydol soap powder with the then-innovative strategy of sponsoring a radio drama. The genre soon becomes known as—you guessed it—"soap operas."

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    1937: Betty Boop sings, "I've got those housecleaning blues," in a cartoon. Her Grampy rigs up a Zamboni-esque bicycle-mop (right), plus a player piano that presses laundry. Then Grampy makes her a frothy soda-fountain drink. We want a Grampy.

    1965: Studies from this decade show that despite advances in technology, women spend slightly more time on house-work—an average of 55 hours a week—than their grandmothers did.

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    1980s: The maker of Dawn begins donating dish soap to help clean oil-covered wildlife. Rescue workers find that washing birds with dish soap gets the best results. (In the 1970s, some rescuers had tried mineral oil, sopped up by cornmeal.) Since then, Dawn has helped save more than 75,000 animals.

    1998: Executive Order No. 13101 mandates that "environmentally preferable" (a.k.a. green) cleaning products be used in all federal facilities. Because the president says so, that's why.

    2012: Washing machines are 98 percent and dishwashers 101 percent more energy-efficient than they were 20 years ago.

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