1984.0716.001.cr 090

The War of the Agitators

I recently made the trip to Fergus, Ontario to conduct some research at the Wellington County Museum and Archives. I am working on a project about Canadian innovations in washing machines in the 1920s and 30s and looking specifically at agitators manufactured and designed by Beatty Bros Ltd. The company was founded in Fergus in 1874 and was based there until 1961. The archives in Fergus have an amazing collection of the papers, advertising campaigns, financial and miscellaneous company records of Beatty Bros. Ltd.

1992.1580 053

1920 Beatty washing machine (art. no. 1992.1580)

Upon my arrival I was struck by how beautiful the building was, well-kept and very modern. I was greeted by two of the archive’s staff, Kim and Elysia, both of whom were extremely helpful throughout the day I spent there.

I was looking for any documents, trade literature and advertising material relating to the invention of the agitator. Prior to my visit, some sources suggested Beatty Bros Ltd invented the agitator, while others stated that it was in fact Maytag’s invention and I wanted to clear that up. As it turns out, the agitator was invented by Maytag in 1922 but the patent didn’t hold up so every washing machine company in North America came up with their own version. The historical files in the Beatty Bros Fonds had a lot of documents on the subject including internal correspondence, ad campaigns and what appears to be an internal presentation on the agitators of the competition and how Beatty’s design compares. It was an incredible peek at what I now refer to as the ‘War of the Agitators’ in the 1920s and 30s.

1984.0716.001.cr 090

An agitator from a Beatty washing machine c 1930s (art. no. 1984.016)

Kim also served as the liaison between myself and the museum’s Curatorial Assistant, Amy Dunlop who, despite having 3 exhibits opening that very day generously found time to show me the museum’s Beatty Bros washing machine collection. She took me to the museum’s storage facility where we saw a collection of Beatty washing machines. I was so pleased to see a Beatty Red Star (a wooden tub, lever-operated machine in production from 1914 to the 1930s) intact, as well as a few other machines we don’t have in our own collection. Such a treat!

Beatty Bros instruments are a window into domestic culture and industry in Canada at a transformative time. Amy and I discussed working together in the future on a project involving our complimentary collections of artifacts, archival material and trade literature. My visit was a success through connecting artifacts, history and place. Our files will be greatly enhanced thanks to our colleagues at WCM&A.


Copies of documents found during my visit to the Wellington County Museum and Archives.

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