From their beginning, Chinese hand laundries had to rely on manual labor to wash and iron clothes, without the benefit of labor saving steam driven machinery. Irons were heavy, 8 and 1/2 pounds of iron, that had to be heated repeatedly over hot coals to a temperature that was not too hot to avoid scorching the clothes. As the temperature soon dropped, the irons had to be reheated after a short period before they could be effectively used. As the day wore on, those irons felt heavier and heavier.
Compared to the volume of work that could be accomplished with modern steam-driven pressing machines, the Chinese laundries were at a decided disadvantage. Yet, some customers still preferred the Chinese hand laundry because they felt that their clothes were more likely to be damaged by the machinery of the large white-owned laundries or they did not like the idea that their clothes would be co-mingled with those of other customers in large washing machinery.
In any case, eventually Chinese laundries upgraded their equipment and acquired modern steam driven machines. Apparently, manufacturers of steam laundry equipment were reluctant to sell to the Chinese laundrymen who they saw as taking business away from white-owned laundries. In the 1892 article below that appeared in papers around the country, it can be seen that an effort was made to prevent Chinese from acquiring steam driven equipment.
Despite the admonition that purchasers of steam machines must promise never to allow them to “fall into the hands of the Chinese competitor,” the article ended by admitting that at least one Chinese laundryman in Birmingham, Alabama, on 19th Street near Third had somehow managed to gain possession of a gas heated collar and cuff iron.
I was especially fascinated to learn about this pioneering Chinese laundryman because some of my distant relatives eventually came to run this Birmingham laundry a generation later around the 1930s. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this 1892 Chinese was also a distant relative!
Chinese laundrymen did not employ the most hygienic procedures resulting in unsanitary conditions that prompted legal actions against them. To cite one example, in 1913, New Orleans health officials launched a campaign to fine Chinese laundries that did not clean up their practices as reported in the Times-Picayune.
Several laundrymen were identified as violating sanitary laws in addition to not having separate dressing rooms and toilets for persons of different colors (black and white) and sexes. Plans were announced to arraign operators of 17 of the 24 inspected Chinese laundries.
Early laundries did not have adequate plumbing to dispose of water, which would be left outside in the gutter, and served as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, especially in New Orleans.
Chinese laundrymen typically lived on the premises of their laundry to save money and for physical safety. Consequently, they prepared and ate their meals as well as slept in areas close to the laundered clothes. These risks were attributed to the “natural carelessness of the Celestial’ (a common term for Chinese at that time) and regarded as unsanitary threats to public health.
Another health concern was that the laundry of ‘diseased and healthy’ customers was not washed separately. Chinese laundries were also criticized for failing to segregate laundry of whites and blacks, called “Colored” in that era, by washing them in the same tubs.
While many of the actions taken against the Chinese were directed toward public health concerns such as the dangers of malaria spread by mosquitoes breeding in stagnant disposed water, it is apparent that other actions were prompted to maintain racial segregation. There was no known evidence that washing the clothes of different races was a threat to physical health. Assuming the wash water was sufficiently hot, strong soap was used, and hot irons were employed, it is also unlikely that threats to health existed from the mingling of clothes from healthy and diseased persons or cooking and eating near the laundering of clothes.