Soapine and anti-Chinese laundry trade card

In the last part of the 19th century, the Kendall Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island, produced a successful soap with the unimaginative name, “Soapine.”

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Trade cards were popular promotional and marketing tools for many businesses during that era and Kendall Company was no exception. In fact, their cards were quite prolific and generally attractive in design. Perhaps the most popular one used humor to show soapine to be effective in changing the dark color of a whale to white (clean).

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Nonetheless, Kendall could not resist the social hostility of the times toward Chinese and incorporated a Chinese laundryman with  endorsing soapine with a mocking sing song approval in the trade card.

Soapine.. Boston publ library

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Fast Disappearing Chinese Laundries of New York City

A New York City blogger, Jeremiah Moss, who laments the vanishing landscape of long standing sites of New York City has described the closing of several Chinese laundries.   Moss noted that the Greenwich village Chinese laundry of Harry Chong that operated for 60 years no longer exists.

harry chong nyc

Similarly, Lee’s Laundry in Greenwich Village closed in 2009 after 30 years of operation.

Lee's laundry greenwich village

Another New York store, Chin’s Laundry and Dry Cleaning store was slated for sale in 2008.

Chin's 2008 nyc W 13th St]These are just examples of the disappearance of a business that one was ubiquitous but no longer easily found anymore.

If you look hard enough, however, you can still find a few Chinese laundries still in business as of 2014 such as the four below, but their days may be numbered so patronize them while you still can.

1503 white plains NY 2014 benny louie 2014 laundry  13th st nycchin laundry 199 nassau 110 Montague NYC 2014 chin hand laun

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First “Laundromat” Opened in 1934 Long After Chinese “Laundries” Started

According to one source, the first laundromat opened in Texas in 1934, and it was not operated by Chinese, contrary to the tendency of many to confuse laundromats with Chinese laundries.

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Even curators at the Sun Yat Sen Museum in Vancouver make this mistake, as shown in one of their labels on an exhibit.

laundromat error label

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A Chinese laundryman’s Enemy Was Sometimes Other Chinese laundrymen

Usually one thinks of Chinese laundrymen having to do battle with organizations of white owners of steam laundries, labor unions, and discriminatory laws such as the San Francisco prohibition against laundries in wooden buildings (Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 1886). In their communities, they suffered pranks, assaults, robberies, and homicides. Add to that, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the inability to bring wives and children from China, they definitely had a difficult existence.

As if these circumstances were not dire enough, competition among Chinese laundrymen was sometimes fierce. Cut rate pricing offered a way to increase patronage, but at the expense of other laundries.  For example, in 1896, Sam Sing, a laundryman in Alexandria, Virginia, accused a nearby competitor, Ah Moy, of sending anonymous obscene letters to Sing’s wife. It was suspected that Moy may have been motivated to send these letters because Sing had cut his laundry prices to gain more business at Moy’s expense. Moy, being single, may have been also motivated by jealousy of Sing who seemed happily married with two children.

1896sam sing and ah moy excerpt

Two years later, another bitter battle developed among some laundrymen in Washington that also involved conflict over cut rate laundry prices. Moy Gee You, aka Hop Sing as well as Ah Sing, was the only laundryman offering cut rate prices, which the Chinese laundry union opposed. They retaliated by accusing him of mailing obscene literature. The plaintiffs admit they paid off Moy Gee You to hold the line on higher laundry prices. They charge he did not live up to their price fixing contract, and should be required to refund the money he had received to fix prices.

It is interesting that in both cases, the way chosen to get back at someone was to accuse them of sending obscene mail. You could get your opponent in trouble with the authorities and he would have to spend time and money defending himself.

1898 Moy Gee You or Ah Sing cut rate laundry  versus the Ch laund Union also accus of obscene letters  1898 price fixing Ch accuse Ah Sing or Moy Gee You and taking fees to keep hi prices but did not

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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