Antique laundry tool for today

breathing washer with antique possers

A 21st century cone laundry tool on a handle (right) alongside 19th and early 20th century possers.

When a reader told me she’d seen a “Manual Washing Machine” on sale looking just like a traditional posser, but with the advantages of plastic, I was intrigued and read every word of the customer reviews, wanting to know who liked it.

I already knew that many visitors to our sister site at Old and Interesting are interested in self-sufficiency. Some are in search of green or thrifty ways of living. Some want to be prepared for power outages or other emergencies. (And, by the way, there are lots of readers with completely different interests – historical ones especially.)

But it was news to me that a posser would be useful on a camping trip, or for soldiers washing their clothes in Afghanistan. This modern blue one has attracted some enthusiastic feedback, though reviewers are always quick to point out any disadvantages too. One person who had not been reading up on vintage laundry methods was misled by the name and tried to stuff their sweatpants inside the cone.

Traditional posser is what I called it at the start, but this kind of thing only goes back so far. The metal cone plunger type belongs to the later 1800s and early 1900s. Older laundry punches and dollies could press and stir a tubful of clothing and household linen, but they didn’t have “suction” to encourage water and suds to circulate through the fabric. Washing dollies may go back to before 1700, but simple wooden sticks (or human feet) are the truly traditional, centuries-old ancestors of this “manual washing machine”.

You may like to see a video by the manufacturer, explaining the best features of his product.

It’s this “possing” action – plunging, pressing, and stirring – that inspired the very earliest washing machines. The machines that move clothes round and round in a revolving tub came later, using the same kind of mechanism as barrel butter churns that turn the cream over and over.

I like the way the 21st century hand tool is called a machine. There’s some historical truth there, since that’s the way the word was used in the early days of modern-ish laundry inventions, when 18th century technology was getting going. All sorts of newly-invented gadgets that were a bit more ingenious than a stick or plank might be called “machines”.

While searching for alternatives to this blue plastic posser, I came across a print of a 1940s style kitchen with a woman using an old metal cone in what looks like a tub-type washing machine, not just a simple washtub.  Is this an authentic “re-enactment” of life 60 years ago?

These are available from (Click picture for more info.)



{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth June 16, 2014 at 7:18 pm

In the cloth diapering community online, have come across instructions for making your own “camp washer. You take a 5-gallon bucket and a plunger, and you drill a hole in the lid of the bucket that the handle of the plunger will fit through, and drill some holes in the plunger to help with water flow. I thought it was a very handy invention! I did not realize this had evolved as a method of doing laundry before today’s washing machines until I happened across an “antique washing machine” on ebay. It was basically a metal plunger with holes.


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