Health Issues and Chinese Laundries

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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.Image

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.

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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.

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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.

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ImageAnother 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.

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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.

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Filed under Hard Laundry Lives, Laundry Operations

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