October 26, 2021

Local historian takes part in History Channel documentary

Dr. Tom Hoover talks Maytag in ‘The Machines That Built America’

In the new History Channel series “The Machines That Built America” local historian Dr. Tom Hoover is featured to help tell the story of Newton’s own Maytag washing machine.

The series covers, as the title suggests, the various machines invented and built in America during the 19th and 20th centuries: airplanes, televisions, farm equipment, power tools and many more.

The eigth episode of the first season covered not just the history of the early Maytag washing machines, but also the dishwasher and refrigerator, and was fittingly titled “Home Tech Revolution.”

But these episodes don’t just appear out of thin air. Every aspect of the show needs to be researched and verified before any preproduction work can even begin. That is where Hoover, as an expert of Maytag history, fits in.

Hoover, who has worked as a history teacher in Cedar Rapids and later a school administrator in Newton, became interested in the history of the Maytag after he retired. He has since written two books on the history of the former washing machine magnate and the company’s various inventions.

His book, “How We Made The Gyrafoam,” covers the journey of Fredrick Louise “F.L.” Maytag, the founder of the Maytag company, and Howard Snyder, one of Maytag’s top engineers, to build the Gyrafoam washing machine, which became a massive success for them both. Hoover’s second book “Farm Fields to Beverly Hills” focuses on the life of F.L. Maytag and his storied carrer.

When the producers of the show reached out to the Jasper County Historical Society looking for a Maytag expert, the answer was obvious.

“The History Channel reached to me out about a year ago,” Hoover said. “We had zoom meetings regularly for a few months, and eventually they sent me a script,” Hoover said.

And while Hoover did find the episode entertaining, and is happy that other people became aware of the history of the Newton-based company, he does think the show misrepresented several key details of Maytag’s story.

“In the documentary they made it seem that Maytag was on the brink of bankruptcy and the washing machine saved the company. That’s not true,” Hoover said.

According to Hoover, the real reason F. L. Maytag decided to start manufacturing washers was because his original product, farm equipment, was only manufactured seasonally. Maytag chose to start manufacturing washing machines because he didn’t want to have to lay off his entire work force when the demand for farm machines dropped off during the winter months.

“The financial issues that they mention during the program didn’t start until after the first world war. The farm economy tanked after the war, that’s when Maytag shifted its focus to washing machines to help stay afloat,” Hoover said.

This shift and a booming domestic economy made Newton the washing machine captiol of the world by 1926, with more than 60 percent of all machines in the United States being manufactured in the Newton area.

“While it is a stretch to say the switch to washing machines saved the company, it did pay off a substantial amount of debt F.L. was carrying. In the 1920s, F.L. owed his creditors over $10 million,” Hoover said. “But once the Gyrafoam went into production Maytag sold $200 million worth of machines within a year. That’s about $2 billion in today’s money.”

And while the background details have been embellished for dramatic effect, Hoover is still very proud of the final product because they did get the evolution of the machines correct.

“Maytag became synonymous with reliability, it’s a worldwide brand name and Newton is still very proud of that legacy even though Maytag is no longer here. Growing up everyone had or knew someone who had a Maytag washer,” Hoover said.

Watch the full episode viewable on the History Channel’s website.

Contact Abby “Adler” Knipfel at 641-792-3121 ext. 6531 or aknipfel@shawmedia.com

Abby Knipfel

Abby "Adler" Knipfel

Journalist at Newton Daily News. Currently covering Jasper County and writing passionate opinion pieces. They/Them