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By Staff | Nov 13, 2009

It’s been said that a handful of key inventions enabled the rise of civilization. A short list of such inventions invariably includes the wheel, the lever and the pop top beer can.

Those who think such trifles are responsible for civilization are – and here I am borrowing a phrase often used by the Oxford Union Debating Society – full of hooey. Without a doubt, the device most responsible for modern civilization is the washing machine.

The first washing machines appeared in the Stone Age. They were quite crude and made entirely of stone. After all, it was the Stone Age.

Clothing was taken to any handy body of water where it was soaked and pounded with rocks. This wasn’t very efficient, especially when it came to eliminating stubborn stains:

“I can’t seem to get this stubborn stain out of Og’s pants! I wish he’d never had that encounter with that saber-toothed tiger.”

“Wow! I didn’t know that Og killed a saber-toothed tiger!”

“I didn’t say he killed it. I only meant that he encountered one.”

Washing machine technology advanced as the centuries passed, eventually evolving into a system that involved a tub and a washboard. Using a washboard vigorously for many hours each day built up the abdominal muscles, which led to the expression “washboard abs.”

Washing machines have undergone innumerable changes over the millennia. The principal driving force behind this transformation has been women.

This is because we guys tend to have awfully low standards when it comes to cleanliness. In fact, it was a guy who invented the “mountain man” method of laundering.

In the spring of the year a typical mountain man would tramp down from the mountains to cash in his cache of furs. The trouble was, many trading posts were located in or near towns, which meant the mountain man might be forced to actually interact with other human beings.

But just look at his buckskins. They’re covered with muskrat snot and moose drool. And that odor is a pungent reminder of last winter’s unexpected encounter with a grizzly bear.

What’s a manly mountain man to do? Why, simply disrobe and toss his clothing onto a handy ant mound. And while the ants do their insect version of dry cleaning, the mountain man might possibly maybe bathe in the nearby creek. Not that he needs it, mind you.

This attitude toward cleanliness is deeply embedded in most guys’ psyche. It’s also diametrically opposed to most women’s attitude. If a woman were to put a piece of clothing under an electron microscope and saw a single molecule of dirt, the clothing would be declared filthy and immediately washed.

I felt sorry for my wife when our sons were young. Keeping things clean with two little boys running around the farm (she often said she had three boys, counting me) was a Herculean task.

Like all little boys, ours were fascinated by such things as interesting pebbles and anything that crept or crawled. My wife soon learned to empty all pockets before doing laundry. Otherwise, the washing machine would begin to emit strange noises that involved those interesting pebbles or some unfortunate creepy crawly suffering from motion sickness.

I admit that I was just as bad, although my wife would doubtless argue that I was even worse.

This is because I was both a dairy farmer and a guy. Specifically, I was a guy who was an ardent adherent to the “mountain man” laundry philosophy.

The trouble is, there are no active ant mounds hereabouts during the wintertime. This meant it could be as much as six months between laundering, if things were left up to me. Which they weren’t.

It seemed as if my wife wanted to launder my spattered coveralls every time I turned around. My attitude was that coveralls don’t need washing until they get to the point where they remain standing after you take them off.

Better sense prevailed and my coveralls were washed a lot more often than I thought necessary. Even so, the water in the washing machine frequently became an icky sudsy slurry.

The true hallmark of civilization is the sight and smell of a steam plume emanating from a clothes dryer. It’s a sign that many things are right with the world.

It means that there is a ready supply of hot water. It means that there is a plumbing system to deliver this hot water and to carry waste water away. The particular aroma tells you that somebody cared enough to buy laundry detergent that contains a pleasantly-scented fabric softener.

But above all, it tells me that my putrid pantaloons and my nasty knickers are coming clean. It also reminds me that my wife has taught me that a real man – a civilized man – does his own laundry.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com

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