The Dangers of Washing Machines

There’s a lot of waiting around during the blessings of the graves, especially in cemeteries like St Colmcille’s in Swords, North County Dublin. My mum’s family are buried in the older part of the cemetery, towards the back, and as the blessings start in the newer section, it always takes a while for the priests to reach our plot. As a child, I passed some of the time by reading the headstones of the neighbouring graves. I remember asking my mum about the grave directly opposite that of my grandparents’. It was the final resting place of a toddler, Shirley Louise Larkin, who mum remembered was drowned after she fell into a washing machine. The strings on her coat got caught, keeping her submerged in the water. The story has always stayed with me, so when I opened an article (see below) after a general search on the Irish Newspaper Archive site this afternoon, I got goosebumps.

The inquest into little Shirley Lousie’s tragic death was reported in the Irish Examiner on 17 February 1960. It was the first article that came up after I did a general search for washing machine drownings. If you read my most recent post, you’ll know that I’m currently writing a chapter on the all-electric house. Women’s magazines in the 1960s were filled with advertisements for modern, time-saving technologies.  The automatic washing machine promised to do all the hard work; the only thing the woman had to do was pop in the clothes, add the detergent, choose the programme and press the switch. Simple as that. Gone were the hours of hand washing on a Monday.

But new technologies brought new dangers. Contemporary newspapers carried numerous reports, like that about Shirley Louise, of youngsters drowning in washing machines.  In September 1964, Novum Multimatic placed an advertisement in Woman’s Way magazine for a washing machine that  was ‘safe and sound’. Readers were assured that there was ‘no DANGER’ and that even a child could operate it. That a manufacturer commissioned an advertisement of this nature indicates that contemporary worries about safety were common enough, and accidents frequent enough, to warrant addressing them in advertisements.

Report from the Irish Examiner, 17 February 1960
Report from the Irish Examiner, 17 February 1960

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

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