Who Did Laundry in America Before the Chinese Came?

Chinese laundries in the U. S. and Canada started sometime in the mid-19th century. Excluded from many occupations, the first business they were allowed to operate was the laundry and by the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese laundries were so ubiquitous that they became the stereotype for Chinese.

But who did the washing of laundry for people who could afford to hire others to perform this essential but labor-intensive chore?  In many areas, black women who were domestic servants for white families did the family wash as well as cook, clean house, and take care of young children.  In addition some black washerwomen picked up laundry from white homes to take back to their neighborhoods to wash and iron before delivering the clean laundry to their owners. Much less is known about the black washerwomen than about the Chinese laundrymen.  When the Chinese began to dominate the laundry business there was tension between black washerwomen and Chinese laundrymen, and even strikes or threats of strikes by the washerwomen.  The conflict was short-lived as the Chinese laundries dealt mainly with articles of men’s clothing such as businessmen’s shirts and collars (detachable, in those early days) or men’s work clothes while black washerwomen dealt more with family items such as linens, women and children’s clothing.

A multi-media theatrical production, The Clothesline Muse, consisting of dance, song, and art developed by jazz singer Nneena Freelon pays tribute to the black washerwomen who helped support their families through the arduous labor of doing laundry for white families.  Lana Garland, a filmmaker, is making a documentary about black washerwomen and The Clothesline Muse.  Freelon and Garland wanted to place their story in a wide societal context that included the Chinese laundries and invited me for an interview to gain more insight and information as I described here.

The Clothesline Musesfr post on Clotheline muse

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Early Chinese Laundries and American-style Marketing

Some early Chinese laundrymen placed small business ads in local newspapers that simply gave the name and address of their business, but soon some employed more promotional wording in their ads that emphasized quality, speed, and reasonable prices.   Promises of  “satisfaction guaranteed,“first-class work,” and New York style began to be used by the more sophisticated.

Even humorous slogans could be found such as “We Wash Everything But The Baby.”

wah lee middleboro vt adL. A. Hop leeJohnston PA  CL ad blotter everyt nbut the baby

 

 

1897 Ohio1884  Oakland  ldy ad
1893 vermont

 

1899 medford

 

 

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Early Chinese Laundries in North Carolina

NC laundry rev map

Chinese laundries across the state of North Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th century sometimes received newspaper coverage. Some stories simply reported the opening or relocation of a laundry, while others dealt with human interest accounts of  some of the laundrymen and their lives. Some laundries paid for small advertisements of their services and prices in some towns. Other articles covered grim topics such as a suicide, homicide, assault, or robbery as well as gambling or drug and narcotics use and sales.  These articles provide evidence of the extent of Chinese laundry presence in this part of the country that is greater than what census records might suggest.  For example, in 1900, 37 Chinese were listed in the census, almost all were in laundry work, but usually 4 or 5 men (often listed as sons, cousins, brothers, nephews) worked at a given laundry.  Thus, one might expect  no more than 10 laundries using this staffing estimate. A 1913 International Business Directory of Chinese businesses listed only two Chinese laundries in North Carolina but that is misleading because a fee was probably required for listings.

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07/30/2014 · 5:09 pm

Some Places Welcomed Chinese and Their Laundries

In 1879 at a time when Chinese and their laundries were generally reviled across the U. S. and Canada, there were places which welcomed them.  For example, in Milan, TN., the local paper opined how welcome a Chinese laundry would be and hoped one would come to town.

Milan TN 1879After the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law passed, illegal Chinese were subject to arrest and deportation. When some smuggled Chinese laundrymen in Augusta, GA. were apprehended in 1904, people in nearby Edgefield, SC.  were encouraged by the hope that some Chinese laundrymen would come to their community to replace their “very unreliable” washer-women

edgefiled welcome

 

Edgefield soon got its wish, but didn’t need to have one of the Chinese dispatched from Augusta.  The news was that John Wing, of Savannah, an experienced laundryman of 17 years had already ordered improved machinery for the opening of Edgefield’s first Chinese laundry shortly.

edgefield sc 2Madison, Florida welcomed “a full fledged Chinese laundry” operated by “Wun Lung” (supposedly his name) from China scheduled to open in a few days.

1908 madison FL

 

In 1914, Welch, West Virginia, was delighted to “at last” have Sam Kee open a Chinese laundry next to the livery stable.

 

1914 bluefiled w va

 

In 1884, just after the Chinese Exclusion law went into effect, Winston (later, Winston-Salem) NC was eager to have a Chinese laundry so that it could show what an ethnic diversity they had, according to a newspaper report in the Weekly Raleigh Register.  The article showed that Winston already had “Canadians…Jews… Indians… but lacked “the pig-tailed celestial.”

1884 Winston NC brag report in Ralleigh paperThey could also have bragging rights if they had the first Chinese laundry in North Carolina.

Although Chinese laundrymen were being driven out of western states at the end of the 19th century, they increasingly moved to the South and East in search of better places to set up business which welcomed them, even if for questionable motives.

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A Chinese Laundryman Takes The High Road Against A Verbal Attack

From the 1880s Chinese laundries were often attacked in many ways  for decades.  They were condemned not only for taking jobs from Americans but for sending their profits back to China rather than spending it in the U. S.   Chinese laundries were depicted as unsanitary and dangers to the health of customers.  (In addition, Chinese  laundrymen were robbed, assaulted, and even killed).

A white-owned steam laundry in Greenwood, South Carolina, made these points in its 1915 rant against a local Chinese laundry.

1915 greenwood steam ldy S.C. screed

 

The presumed target of this screed was J. S. Wah, a Chinese who took the high ground in his measured reply, “Perfectly Sanitary,” published the following week  in the local newspaper. Wah turned the tables on the Greenwood Stem Laundry by describing its complaints as the whining of a sore losing rival.  He concluded by emphasizing that he contributed to the Greenwood economy and thanks his loyal customers.

1915 J. S. Wah rejoinder Greenwood SC steam ldy

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Chinese Laundries of Macon, Georgia (1885-1956)

When I was growing up in Macon, Georgia in the 1940s, my parents operated the only Chinese laundry in town.  As a child, the thought or question never entered my mind once as to whether there had been any Chinese laundries or other businesses there before my parents came to Macon in 1928.  It was not until 1956 on the eve of my father’s retirement and move to San Francisco when the local newspaper published a commentary  with a headline, “Not A Chinese in Our Town for the First Time in A Century,” that I ever considered the possibility that other Chinese had been in Macon before 1928.

As I was only 15 years old then, this realization piqued by interest, but only momentarily and it was not until about 60 years later that I decided to search archival resources to learn what I could about these earlier Chinese in Macon. Much to my surprise, I found over 30 newspaper articles dealing with the dozen or so Chinese men who had all operated laundries in Macon from 1885 until 1928 when my parents came from China.  There were no Chinese women or children during this period so my mother was the first Chinese woman and I and my 3 siblings were the first Chinese children born in Macon.  I report my findings in this downloadable linked document, Chinese Laundrymen in the Heart of Georgia (1885-1956).

macon cover

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A “laundromat” is no more a “laundry” than a “cafeteria” is a “cafe.”

Many people seem to confuse “laundromats” with “laundries” even though there is  a world of difference between them.  Many early Chinese immigrants operated “laundries” from the last quarter of the 19th century well into the middle of the 20th century.  At first, these were hand laundries but eventually many of them adopted steam powered presses and washing machines in place of scrub boards and heavy charcoal heated hand irons. In either case, the Chinese laundryman washed and ironed the clothing items for the customers.

hand laundry -1

arthur leipzig Ideal Laundry, Brooklyn?1946

Ideal Hand Laundry, Arthur Leipzig, 1946

Today, these  full service “laundries”  have been largely replaced by “laundromats” and home washing and drying equipment. Laundromats are designed for customer self-service  and use coin-operated individual machines. They provide no ironing equipment or services.

DSCN0938 laundromat

 Nonetheless, the tendency to use the term, “laundromat,”  as an equivalent of laundry persists. I wonder if ‘cafeteria’ will come to substitute for ‘cafe’ someday!

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