Countless times you may have given her a pile of funky smelling sheets, a pair of conversing socks or some downright shameful underpants to clean. And has she ever complained when you constantly pushed her buttons? Not likely. Ladies and gentlemen I introduce to you the first lady of modern laundry, the first gentlewoman in a world of gentlemen, Gentle Annie.
Gentle Annie, like many of you, was born in 1985 and like perhaps a few of you, was the result of 5 years of intensive development at the Fisher and Paykel workshop in East Tamaki. Some of you may have even been conceived on the top of Gentle Annie if your parents were so inclined. Incidentally, earlier models were known to vibrate much more and had a much larger effect on the national birth rate, although this practice is not recommended because of the effects of ‘jiggy’ sperm on the future dancing style of the conceived. Anyways, it was not her reproductive qualities that Annie was famous for, although she was not adverse to the odd bit of front loading, it was her revolutionary electronic component system that outmoded every gear driven machine in the market. She was the first world’s washing machine to use a brushless DC motor and was proudly New Zealand made.
But enough about Gentle Annie the washing machine, what about Gentle Annie the woman? I visited the sweet thing at her home in Havelock North where we shared a pot of tea and a jig-saw puzzle. The story behind Anne’s immortalisation as a washing machine is wholly justifiable considering she spent most of her life washing like a machine.
“Life has been one big repeating cycle for me because of my condition,” she confesses.
Anne suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which, from a young age, manifested itself around her daily hygiene habits and in particular, the washing of her clothes.
“I would spend half my day washing myself and the other half washing my clothes, it was an interminable cycle that almost spun me out of control,” she says examining a piece of puzzle with her magnifying glass.
“My flatmates would rib me and make up names; Mental Annie was their favourite. Sometimes I would refuse to wash and they would call me ‘Feral Annie’ or ‘Cerebral Annie’ if I was on one of my washing sprees. It was all good humoured, and we would all laugh standing around the washing machine, just laughing and washing, washing and laughing.”
I lost Annie for 20 minutes as she stared blankly out the window, still through her magnifying glass, perhaps wishing that she was washing and laughing. Her lapses in concentration are due to the propheine that she takes to repress her OCD, a sort of washing powder mixture of Prozac and morphine; one of the principal reasons behind her current nickname Gentle, and also why she has taken 3 years to do the border of her puzzle. This is one lady however, who deserves the odd laundry flashback having spent 45 years working for the New Zealand Army as Chief Launderer. In an era when the roles of the sexes were well defined, Anne took that definition, laughed and washed it.
“I wasn’t one for equal footing; I was for female domination in everything at home, starting from the letterbox right through to the garden shed.”
She took that ‘cleanhouse’ attitude into the army and proved immensely popular with her male comrades who found instant respect for this woman who not only cleaned their uniforms but also laughed maniacally and then stared into space for long periods.
She met her first love during the Pacific War, an American automatic washing machine that replaced the old hand wringers.
“I was compelled and obsessed by this American model, it was just so much faster and louder than the models we had in New Zealand at the time and so I eloped with it. We were having so much fun washing and laughing, laughing and washing, that I forgot there was a war on and also got a teeny bit feral.”
She was shipped back to New Zealand, washed and posted at Waiouru where she remained until retirement providing gentle and distinguished service that did not go unnoticed by Maurice Paykel and the late Woolf Fisher. The two recognised her as an iconic figure in the field of New Zealand laundry and the result is a wonderful example of Kiwi innovation.
Anne drifts off again, so I take the opportunity to do some of her puzzle. I am interrupted by a smell of burning hair as the magnifying glass has set fire to her chin whiskers. My only option is to throw a cup of luke warm tea in her face to extinguish the flames. The sideburns are still smouldering so I pick up the tea pot and while pouring its contents on her face her burly sons arrive for their weekly visit. “Cuppas anyone?”