An 18th-Century Washing Machine

In the National Library of Israel's Edelstein Collection, we discovered evidence of one of the world's first modern washing machines, dating back to the 18th century


“Question: How can we bleach laundry under the following conditions?” This is how the first page of our pamphlet begins, in which we will discuss… laundry. The question is quickly followed by a list of sixteen conditions, which must have sounded farfetched to readers of the period – the mid-18th century.

  • No laundry soap
  • No boiling water
  • No special heating, and occasionally no wood nor fire
  • No boilers
  • No drainpipes
  • No water jugs nor laundry tools
  • Minimal preparation
  • No washerwoman
  • No noticing that you’re even doing laundry
  • No human contact
  • No tearing, nor dirt nor damage to the laundry
  • No more than 120 square centimeters of space required for laundering
  • No getting the entire area wet
  • No getting a cold in the winter nor suffering from heat in the summer
  • No repeated soaking of clothes in soap
  • And finally, laundry dries within approximately fifteen minutes

So how could this wonder be achieved? Was it really possible to wash laundry without standing knee-deep in a river, while scrubbing clothes on a metal washboard? French readers who received this pamphlet must have had endless questions… “To do all this, you must use the newly invented washing machine, and here is its description,” the pamphlet continued.

The more up-to-date readers of the time may have heard of an English patent for a similar device issued in the late 17th century. Or perhaps they came across an illustration of an early washing machine, published in 1752 in “The Gentleman’s Magazine“. But it’s more likely that they had never heard of such a thing, taking into account the world of the 18th century, which was experiencing only the first hints of globalization. Most readers were probably surprised to hear about this newfangled invention, and perhaps even dismissed the claims as nonsensical fabrications.

Illustration of a washing machine from the January 1752 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine. “Of reducing the Starch Duty”, the title read, next to the rather offensive (by today’s standards) name given to the invention – the “Yorkshire Maiden”

Our pamphlet was printed in French in Strasbourg in 1767. As mentioned on the cover, it was in fact translated from German. The pamphlet’s title promised, “A description of the machine invented in England and perfected in Germany, for washing laundry – with greater convenience and at lower cost than you have been used to.” In Germany that same year, the original English washing machine received an upgrade thanks to a man named Jacob Christian Schäffer.

Jacob Christian Schäffer, 1718-1790

Schäffer was a theologian, inventor, and scientist. He researched the plants, birds, fungi, and insects found in the vicinity of his city – Regensburg. His research was extensive and covered many fields of knowledge, and he also drew wonderful illustrations of the animals and plants he researched. The aforementioned washing machine wasn’t his only invention. He also experimented with color pigments and optics, created lenses and invented paper-making methods.

An illustration by Schäffer for one of his books

From Germany, the washing machine pamphlet made its way to Strasbourg – the capital of the Alsace region, which throughout history has changed hands many times between Germany and France. And there, as described in the beginning of the pamphlet, a “clever mechanic” managed to construct the machine successfully. The pamphlet goes on to describe the various machine parts. As we see in the accompanying illustration, the device consisted of a large container into which the clothes were thrown, as well as a rod, which was inserted into it and which generated the spinning motion that we are familiar with in modern washing machines. The pamphlet also contained technical instructions, essentially providing an answer to the booklet’s opening question.

As with any self-respecting pamphlet, the text concluded by detailing the various advantages of using the machine, including: saving wood, soap, and time, as well as maintaining the health of those doing the laundry. In summary, Schäffer wrote, “I think my work here is done. What I have stated here proves that we can rightfully describe the new invention as a convenient, efficient, and lucrative machine in every way.”

The illustration of Schäffer’s improved washing machine

The next development was the invention of the “drum,” in which clothes were inserted and rotated with a handle. It took another hundred years for the next significant improvement: the use of a steam engine that could rotate the device without any human assistance whatsoever.

In the early twentieth century, the electric washing machine came into existence.

If you’ve read this far, you probably want to know how this French translation of a German text about an improvement on an English invention found its way to Israel’s National Library. We won’t leave you hanging: the copy found in the National Library is a small, green book which includes essays about different washing machines, with a particular focus on those operated by steam. The book is part of the Edelstein Collection, a large collection of books donated to the National Library of Israel by the Jewish-American chemist, Sydney M. Edelstein and named after him. Edelstein studied the history of fabrics and their dyes, and is especially famous for his contribution to the research of archaeological textile in Israel. His collection of books is the foundation of the National Library’s scientific collection. We invite you to visit this collection and have a look at this fascinating book.


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Marcel Marceau: The Legendary Mime Who Saved Jewish Children and Fought Nazis

"Marceau started miming to keep children quiet as they were escaping"

Marcel Marceau. From the Yossi Alfi Archive, accessible through a collaboration between the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and Haifa University.

He was born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923 in Strasbourg, France, to a Jewish family. His parents were Ann Werzberg Mangel and Charles Mangel, a kosher butcher. Young Marcel Mangel discovered Charlie Chaplin at age five when his mother took him to the movies and he became an avid fan. He entertained his friends with Chaplin imitations, and dreamed of starring in silent movies.

When France entered World War II, Marcel, 16, fled with his family to Limoges, France. In 1944 Marcel’s father was captured and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was killed. Marcel’s mother survived.

Marcel and his younger brother Alain adopted the last name “Marceau” during the German occupation of France to avoid being identified as Jewish. The name was chosen as a reference to François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, a general of the French Revolution. The two brothers joined the French Resistance in Limoges, where they saved hundreds of Jewish children from the race laws and concentration camps, and after the liberation of Paris, joined the French army.

The first time Marcel used mime was after France was invaded, in order to keep Jewish children quiet while he helped them escape to neutral Switzerland.

“He was miming for his life.” Image from the Yossi Alfi Archive, accessible through a collaboration between the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and Haifa University.

Masquerading as a boy scout, Marcel evacuated a Jewish orphanage in eastern France. He told the children he was taking them on a vacation in the Alps, and led them to safety in Switzerland. Marcel made the perilous journey three times, saving hundreds of Jewish orphans. He was able to avoid detection by entertaining the children with silent pantomime. The documentary filmmaker Phillipe Mora, whose father fought alongside Marcel in the French resistance, said, “Marceau started miming to keep children quiet as they were escaping. It had nothing to do with show business. He was miming for his life.” While fighting with the French resistance, Marcel ran into a unit of German soldiers. Thinking fast, he mimicked the advance of a large French force, and the German soldiers retreated.

Word spread throughout the Allied forces of Marcel’s remarkable talent as a mime. In his first major performance, Marcel entertained 3,000 US troops after the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Later in life, he expressed great pride that his first review was in the US Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Owing to Marcel’s excellent command of the English, French, and German languages, he worked as a liaison officer with General George Patton’s army.

An American officer and French partisan crouch behind a car during a street fight in France, 1944. (Public Domain: National Archives and Records Administration)

Marceau joined Jean-Louis Barrault’s company and was soon cast in the role of Arlequin in the pantomime, “Baptiste” (which Barrault had interpreted in the film Les Enfants du Paradis). Marceau’s performance won him such acclaim that he was encouraged to present his first “mimodrama”, Praxitele and the Golden Fish, at the Bernhardt Theatre that same year. The acclaim was unanimous and Marceau’s career as a mime was firmly established.

In 1947 Marceau created “Bip the Clown” which was first played at the Théâtre de Poche (Pocket Theatre) in Paris. In his appearance he wore a striped pullover and a battered, beflowered, stovepipe silk opera hat. The outfit signified life’s fragility and Bip became his alter ego, just as the “Little Tramp” became Charlie Chaplin’s. Bip’s misadventures with everything from butterflies to lions, from ships and trains, to dance-halls or restaurants, were limitless.

Program for Marcel Marceau’s 1966 appearance in Israel. From the Yossi Alfi Archive, accessible through a collaboration between the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and Haifa University.

For the next six decades, Marcel was the world’s foremost master of the art of silence. Pop star Michael Jackson credited Marcel with inspiring his famous moonwalk. In 2001, Marcel was awarded the Wallenberg Medal for his acts of courage during the Holocaust. When the award was announced, people speculated on whether Marcel would give an acceptance speech. He replied, “Never get a mime talking, because he won’t stop.”

Marcel Marceau died at the racetrack in Cahors, France, on 22 September 2007, which happened to be Yom Kippur, at the age of 84. At his burial ceremony, the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (which Marceau long used as an accompaniment for an elegant mime routine) was played, as was Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5.

Marcel Marceau was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. In 1999 New York City declared 18 March “Marcel Marceau Day”.



Many thanks to the author and JewishGen for permission to republish this article. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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Tolstoy and the Jews: It’s Complicated

A glimpse into the legendary Russian author's relationship with the People of the Book

Color portrait photo of Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, 1908 (Photo: Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky; Public Domain)

Leo Tolstoy never gave the few Jewish characters referenced in his works names or individual identities. He almost did once, but changed his mind.

That, of course, does not make Tolstoy an anti-Semite.

One time he refused to allow Constantin Shapiro, an apostate Jew and personal photographer to the Russian royal family, onto his premises, later calling him “The Jew Shapiro” when referring to the incident. Despite converting to Russian Orthodoxy at a young age, Shapiro was a celebrated Hebrew lyricist who maintained close ties to Jewish culture and people, even leaving tens of thousands of rubles to Zionist causes when he died. On philosophical grounds, the Christian Tolstoy was apparently not a big fan of conversion in general. Perhaps it was that. Maybe he was just not fond of Shapiro’s lyrics. Or perhaps he was an anti-Semite.

Self-portrait of Constantin Shapiro taken in the mid-1870s. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Tolstoy once said, “I have met and know a great many good Jewish people.” It was the “My lawyer is Jewish” of its day.

Many of his disciples were, in fact, Jewish, though. When one of them, A.B. Goldenveizer, once tried to run up a hill and subsequently fell, losing consciousness, his teacher reportedly remarked, “All this happened because everywhere Jews always strive to be first.” On another occasion, following a disappointing meeting with the well-known German-Jewish writer Berthold Auerbach, Tolstoy described the latter as “Nothing but a Jew”. It does not seem related to his verse.

Berthold Auerbach, not Tolstoy’s favorite interlocutor. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Nonetheless, Tolstoy also had a number of Jewish acquaintances and perhaps even friends, like Leonid Pasternak, the chief illustrator of his novels, or Rabbi Solomon Alekseevich Minor of Moscow, the famous author’s Hebrew teacher. Tolstoy very much respected Rabbi Minor and often frequented Pasternak’s home where he hung out with Russian Jewish intelligentsia.

Illustration of a klezmer band by Leonid Pasternak. From the Postcard Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Thanks to Rabbi Minor’s instruction, Tolstoy read the Hebrew Bible in the original, concluding that it was full of “minute, meaningless and often cruel rules,” in his opinion a contradictory faith to the superior Christianity.

“To study the faith of the Jews in order to understand the Christian faith is like studying a candle before it is lit, in order to understand the significance of the light which comes from a burning candle,” he opined in 1880’s Introduction to an Examination of the Gospels.

Tolstoy was not a black and white kind of guy, though. His views were nuanced and vacillated over time. Within just a few years, the “unlit candle” may have become an “eternal fire”.

In “What is a Jew?”, allegedly written by Tolstoy in 1891, the answer given to the question posed in the essay’s title is: “A Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the eternal fire and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the nations have drawn their beliefs and religions.” In recent decades, doubt has been cast on the essay’s authorship, though, with evidence indicating that it may have been written by someone named G. Gutman as early as 1871, and not published under Tolstoy’s name until 1908, when it appeared in the Warsaw-based Yiddish-language magazine Teatr Welt.

Nonetheless, around the time he allegedly authored “What is a Jew?”, he did in fact write the following words to Jewish journalist Faivel-Meyer Getz, “The moral teaching of the Jews and the practical example of their lives stand incomparably higher than the moral teaching and the practical example set by the people of our quasi-Christian society… Judaism, by adhering to the moral principles which it professes, occupies a higher position than quasi-Christianity in everything that comprises the goals of our society’s aspirations. Christian people do not possess any moral principles, and the result is that hate and persecutions abound.”

One of the most notable cases of “hate and persecution” abounding at that time was the infamous Dreyfus Affair, about which Tolstoy controversially remained silent. He also initially stayed silent following the brutal Kishinev Pogrom. He was a thinker and not a publicist, Tolstoy argued in his own defense. Nonetheless, ultimately he decried the pogrom as a “villainous act”, signing a published letter of protest to the mayor of Kishinev and even sending literary works to Sholem Aleichem to be included in a book dedicated to the victims.

Victims of the Kishinev Pogrom outside the Jewish hospital, 1903. From the National Library of Israel archives

When asked about his view on the Jews a few years later, Tolstoy responded, “I can only answer as the teaching of Christ instructs us to behave toward people who are our brothers. The more unpleasant they appear to us, the greater the effort we must exert not just to overcome this hostility, but to awaken in our heart love for them.”

Though perhaps less influential now than a century ago, Tolstoy has undoubtedly had a significant impact on Jewish culture.

“Tolstoy’s Farm” – the South African prototype for the Gandhian ashram – was bankrolled by one of many Jews who admired his teachings and worked closely with Gandhi in India. Around the same time, many of the most prominent Zionists studied Tolstoy and tried to live his teachings. A.D. Gordon, one of the most important ideologues of the early Zionist movement, was known as the “Tolstoy of Palestine”.

In 1928, Nobel Prize-winner Bertrand Russell wrote in The Forward that “Tolstoy is the nearest approach to a Hebrew Prophet that modern times have produced. If he prefaced his words by ‘Thus said the Lord,’ it would seem quite natural, for there is a convincing tone of authority about his denunciations, which makes it very difficult to disbelieve what he is saying.”

Thus said the Lord: “I have met and know a great many good Jewish people.”


Thanks to Prof. Brian Horowitz and Misha Beletsky for their invaluable input.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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The riots of the "Farhud" in Iraq convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for Jews living in Arab countries in the 1940s

Girls from Damascus on a worker's farm ("Meshek HaPoalot") in the Land of Israel, early 1944, from the book 'On a Mission to Lebanon and Syria' by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi (Hebrew)

She was a revolutionary, a passionate Zionist and among the founders of the Jewish defense organization Hashomer. She was also one of only two women in the group. It’s difficult to think of a Zionist humanitarian project in which Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi wasn’t involved during the establishment of the Jewish and democratic state her generation had always dreamed of.

Of all her various activities, her top priority was immigration to the Land of Israel. Ben-Zvi was especially concerned with the immigration of young women, as well as their training. These young women needed to acquire the skills that would benefit the Zionist project. While most people of her generation perhaps preferred to wait for a later opportunity, or perhaps were not at all concerned with the matter, Ben-Zvi saw great importance in bringing Jews of Arab origin to the ‘state in-the-making’, as soon as possible. When she identified a window of opportunity to realize this great dream, she immediately pursued it.

It was the events of the Farhud – the horrific massacre in Baghdad on June 1st, 1941, in which 179 members of the Jewish community were murdered – that convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for the Jews of the Arab world. Since access to Baghdad was practically inaccessible, “an idea had come up; to​bring young women from the neighboring Arab countries – Lebanon and Syria.”

The mass grave of the victims of the Baghdad Farhud, from the book Iraq, edited by Haim Saadoun (Hebrew)

Ben-Zvi met with Henrietta Szold, the coordinator of the Youth Aliyah organization, spoke with children who emigrated from Syria on their own and promised to bring as many young women as possible to Mandatory Palestine and train them in agriculture. Szold provided her with fifty immigration certificates (issued by the British) for the mission. There was concern that if she were to gather too many young women, the British would deny them entry into Israel.

From Jerusalem, Ben-Zvi headed out to Beirut. She relied on connections she had formed with Beirut community leaders during their visit to Mandatory Palestine and promptly met with Joseph Farhi. Many were opposed to the journey, arguing that “in Jewish homes in these countries girls are not allowed to leave the house,” and concluded that she would not be able to persuade the families to let the young women leave.

Despite the help she received from activists of HeChalutz, the Zionist underground organization, the task of swaying the families indeed turned out to be quite challenging: In many families, the father had immigrated to Latin America and mothers “looked forward to joining the head of the family overseas with their children, and, for the time being, were apprehensive about separating from the girls selected for Aliyah [Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel].”

“The mothers hear that I am looking for girls ages 13 and 14 and are already concerned about their future because at 16 or 17 years old they marry their daughters off. I reassure them, explaining that the girls will be accepted to the settlement project, where they will not be held back from getting married, raising families and bringing their relatives from Beirut to Israel.”

That was exactly the answer the worried families wanted to hear.

Jewish youths engage in group exercise, Damascus, 1943, from the book, Syrian Jewry, the Children’s Aliyah – Part 2 (Hebrew)

From the moment she arrived in Damascus, Ben-Zvi was struck by the vibrant Zionist activity in the Syrian capital, which easily overshadowed the relatively dormant Beirut underground organization. She was impressed by the Jewish youth’s strong desire to immigrate to Israel, even at the price of bitter arguments with their parents.

The eagerness and urgency expressed by the Youth Aliyah representative alarmed the activists who accompanied her: They demanded that Ben-Zvi refrain from speaking Hebrew even inside the Jewish ghetto. Only at the home of the community leader was she allowed to speak freely. She spoke to the dignitaries in Hebrew and French and was pleased to see that “the idea of ​​bringing students to be trained on educational farms was willingly accepted.” After receiving unanimous approval, she scheduled a meeting for the next day with the high school students.

“On my very first visit we informed the older high school girls of the idea of bringing young women to the Land of Israel for training and study. When the girls were asked if they would like to immigrate, they all raised their hands enthusiastically. In the more advanced grades, most high school students were girls,  while there were few young men. I learned that the boys had to work to support their parents. The few young men in class immediately demanded an explanation: ‘Why? Why could only girls immigrate? What would be the fate of the boys?’ I tried to offer comfort: ‘Their time will come, too.’ During the long recess I felt that the news was spreading from one class to the next. As I walked through the yard, I was stared at, hundreds and hundreds of children were drawn to me, calling out, ‘Palestine, Palestine, Eretz Yisrael!'”

After sorting out the immigration process in Damascus, Ben-Zvi moved on to Aleppo, arriving in November, 1943. She was shocked to see the location of the girls’ school – it was adjacent to a Syrian brothel frequented by soldiers around the clock. She heatedly told the school principal, “the whole neighborhood is a symbol of diasporic dispossession.”

Parents in the audience at a performance by members of a Zionist youth movement, 1943, from the book, Syrian Jewry, the Children’s Aliyah – Part 2 (Hebrew)

Just like in Beirut, Ben-Zvi was desperate to meet with the community members, who barely spoke Hebrew. And again, like in Beirut, she blamed the Jewish community in the Land of Israel for failing to send support for the few dedicated teachers of the community.

“On Friday morning, a sense of bustling preparation for Shabbat was in the Aleppo air. The Jews in the streets drew my attention with the words: ‘Erev Shabbat! ‘Erev Shabbat‘[the eve of the Jewish Sabbath]! And in the school classrooms, in every grade, it was heard everywhere – ‘Erev Shabbat!’ Those who mumbled in French, those who spoke Arabic, they all called out, everywhere – ‘Erev Shabbat!’ My heart, too, was filled with the spirit of Shabbat. And isn’t Shabbat as virtuous as the Torah itself? Is it not Shabbat that has kept the flame burning from ages past to this day? It is the eve of Shabbat even now, yet my time is so short! I must gather the candidates who registered at the Alliance, Jamiliya, and Bahsita schools today, on the eve of Shabbat. And I have already scheduled a parents’ meeting after the Shabbat meal.”

Ben-Zvi described the great pressure she was under to accept as many girls as possible: “And the list keeps getting longer; the girls are crying and their mothers are crying, and just like that – they have all turned 14 years old; including one who is almost 18 years old and another who is not even 12 years old.”

In despair, Ben-Zvi decided that “the age will be determined solely according to birth certificates” and girls of the appropriate age were chosen according to a clear criterion: “If they are fit for agricultural training and theoretical studies.” In order to not leave out any suitable candidates, Ben-Zvi herself conducted interviews with each potential candidate.

Ben-Zvi encouraged the boys and adults she met in Aleppo to immigrate to Israel illegally, as she only had enough permits for fifty girls. It was the same message she delivered in Beirut and Damascus. From Aleppo, Ben-Zvi returned to Beirut, where, with Farhi’s support, she gathered the girls from all three cities. Some of the young women were accompanied by Ben-Zvi herself and some by other activists. They were received in Mandatory Palestine at Ayanot, Petach Tikva and Nahalat Yehuda. It wouldn’t be long before many of the young women would become Hebrew teachers and immigration activists themselves. They made the journey back to their communities and helped their families immigrate to Israel.

For the rest of her life, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi would take pride in her projects, especially in the achievements of the young immigrants whom she helped reach the Land of Israel. However, one question remained in her mind: “To me, it does not make sense; how could we have neglected these Jewish communities that are so close to us, until now? Damascus, located just an hour from the Israeli border and Beirut, which is just three hours from Haifa!”

A family in the garden of its home in Aleppo, 1910. From the book Syrian Jewry – Pictures for an Exhibition (Hebrew)


Girls at the Ayanot training farm, a few months after immigrating to Israel. From the book On a Mission to Lebanon and Syria by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi (Hebrew)


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