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!