What part of housework do Americans spend the most time doing but know the least about? Now, think about this for a minute—don't blow it off. When you live away from home, what "housework" takes the biggest chunk of your time?
The answer? Laundry. Americans spend more time each week washing and drying clothes than cleaning house, mowing lawns, or cooking. In fact, the average American "housewife" spends seven to nine hours doing laundry each week.
There are two good reasons. We own more clothes than people in other countries (clothes are cheaper here), and we have a tendency to wash them after only one use. Unfortunately, given that we don't get our clothes very clean when we do wash them (part of the "know the least about" problem), we may have to wash them more often.
We don't know much about washing clothes because we tend to do it like Mom did—we haven't just studied the problem very well. In addition, there's a bewildering array of fabric types that we have to take care of, from 100 percent pure cotton to washable silk and even washable, breathable polyester. Rather than learning how to wash each of these, we adopt a sort of middle-of-the-road approach—spray some stain remover on it before throwing it in; maybe pour in some fabric softener; wash it in warm water (Americans seem to be allergic to hot-water washing); rely on the detergent to have a lot of bleaches, color brighteners, and whiteners; give it a cold rinse; and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, that "best," compared to clothes washed in European machines, is noticeably inferior. Why? Whereas Americans use top-loading washing machines, Europeans use front-loading washing machines, and those front loaders do a better job of cleaning clothes. Unlike top loaders that use an agitator that beats clothes as they wash, front-loading machines tumble clothes. The result is that American clothes get old before their time—they wear out faster.
Why do Americans want top loaders? For one thing, they're easier to load. You don't have to stoop over to throw the clothes in or take them out. For another, they can handle larger loads. For a family of four, if you're going to wash everything after it's worn once, the capacity to wash larger loads becomes increasingly important.
Even if we had front-loading machines, we might not get it right. How many of you put in the clothes, the detergent, and extras such as bleach or fabric softener and then turn the machine on so that it begins to fill with water? Well, that's all wrong. You should fill the machine, then add the detergent and other concoctions—the clothes go in last.
So, we Americans wash 35 billion loads of laundry the wrong way each year—that's 1,100 loads begun every second. The result is a quarter ton of less-than-pristine clothing generated by each of us each year. What's more, we use 16 or more gallons of water for each load, compared to 4 gallons for a European machine. Aha!—one statistic in our favor: The typical wash cycle in the United States is 35 minutes, compared to 90 minutes in Europe. But maybe that's not good. Perhaps washing clothes more gently for longer gets them cleaner.
Given that old habits (washing clothes like Mom did) die hard, what could an American appliance manufacturer do? Whirlpool decided to build a "global washing machine"—one that used the same "platform" or basic configuration no matter what area of the globe. Then, the basic platform could be modified for different countries and conditions. For example, the tub could be bigger in the United States for people who want to wash larger loads.
However, a global machine had to be a front loader. How did Whirlpool hope to get around American consumers' objections? First, it put the new machine on a pedestal—that eliminated some of the stooping. Then, it put a drawer in the pedestal where cleaning supplies can be stored. To exceed customers' load-size expectations, Whirlpool...