White Steam Laundries versus Chinese Hand Laundries

hand-ironThe early domination of Chinese laundries relied on hand irons, which was very laborious and time consuming.  At the end of the 19th century, steam powered laundry pressing equipment was changing the business. A Chicago Tribune article in 1901 praised the growth of the steam laundry and concluded that “in Chicago it is driving the Chinaman out of his favorite occupation.”


“Steam laundries are everywhere taking the white man’s washing out of the hand of the Celestials, and is rapidly forcing them out of the washing business. In 1850 there were about 276 laundrys in Chicago and of these but 66 or run by Chinamen… in the new directory, there are shown 459 laundries conducted by white people, most of which are steam, of a total of 707, but 249 are conducted by Chinese, … greatly less than that of half a decade ago.

LOC 1870s anti chin washer

Steam machinery displayed at the world’s fair made a great impression on Chicagoans… “In no branch was this more marked than in the laundry machinery and after the fair steam laundries began to be started. Popular prejudice was against them for a time. They steam machines were said to tear the garments, to do rough work, to wear things out fast, and to rub the buttons off.  They were even said to be used with chemicals, which injured the fibre, and the public was slow to patronize them.

However, the steam laundries reduced the price for washing a white shirt to 4 cents, and that brought flocks of people …”One by one the Celestial laundries disappeared.   The shop of the mysterious yellow man will be only a tradition.  And a strange tradition it will be, for even now, when everybody goes past a Chinese laundry…there is much that is unknown… When does John Chinaman sleep?…Go by his shop at any time of day or night and you will see him busy over tub or washing board, or seated on the front steps gazing at the same stars he used to gaze at in his home 10,000 miles away.”

“What do the marks on a Chinese laundry ticket mean?  It is doubtful if John himself can answer that….Meaning is unnecessary.  But it may be that John has a way of describing in his own language the peculiarities of each of his customers in this way, and knows when a man presents a check just what sort of a man he is and whether there is already a grudge against him outstanding.”

“And are all of the workers in the Chinese laundries John, or are some of them Mrs. Johns?  And this will never be answered unless some law be devised to require that John wear a label which will enable the Caucasian to distinguish between the two when they are clad in the same style of suits of loose blue stuff.”

“With all the questions, however, John is doomed.  Already the bulk of the business is handled by the big steam machines, and soon they will have it all.  And then Chicago may have a run of Chinese cooks, or may take to patronizing Chinese restaurants or may lose her Chinese population altogether.”

While it is true that many laundrymen turned to the restaurant business after 1900, and overall there was a decline in the number of Chinese laundries, many adapted and joined the modern age of steam machinery and abandoned the coal heated hand iron and Chinese laundries continued to exist for at least another 50 to 75 years.

Buster Brown “Pranks” A Chinese Laundryman

One of the first, and most successful comic strips, created around 1902 was Richard Outcault’s Buster Brown, a mischievous preteen boy who with his pit bull terrier, Tige, got into all kinds of trouble. This is the same Buster Brown would soon become associated with a leading brand of children’s shoes that dominated the field for decades.

In the episode below, Buster decides to see how a trusting and unsuspecting Chinese laundryman would react if he brought in some laundry in which was wrapped some ink and mice!  Buster Brown was not the only perpetrator of often mean tricks on Chinamen.  To the contrary, the use of a Chinese laundryman as the victim was a popular theme in the humor of the period.

Buster Brown and Tige At A Chinese Laundry

At the end of each episode, a summary panel would offer some “moral” or “lesson.”  For this one, Buster concludes after hearing all the yelling and screaming by the Chinaman under opening the laundry bundle that whereas you can straighten out a shirt with starch and an iron, it would take a steam roller to straighten the Chinese language.   Buster was unapologetic and could only think about how much fun he had.


Creating Negative Images of The Chinese Laundryman

A Chicago newspaper, Daily Inter Ocean, published an article in 1876,  “The Heathen Chinee as an Element of Chicago’s Population,”     that depicted Chinese laundrymen in unflattering terms. These views were typical of how Chinese laundrymen were portrayed across the country then and they persisted for many decades.

“They come here, live on the cheapest of food in the most penurious style, the least expensive lodgings, and the most cheerless way. John’s habits are not perhaps inclined to be extravagant…. He brings no money with him, when he returns to China he takes whatever he has accumulated. It is not as though he came here to live, or, as we say to settle.”

A description of the manner of dress of the Chinese laundryman included the following:

“There is first the inevitable blouse… John can get into this habit easier than he can get out. Then he wears the everlasting round hat…usually black. He has to carry it on his head so as to conceal his back hair… Now he has the wooden-soled shoes, that make the cobblers swear a civilized oath at John’s cupidity and bookmaker. And the pantaloons have been shaped nicely by the former owner who was on the pawn. If it is a warm day John will have on his heaviest muffler. He always looks cold.”

Chinese laundryman

From Samuel Adams Drake, The Making of the Great West (1887)

The article recognized the low income and difficult living and work conditions:

“A laundry can in brisk times will earn $8 to $12 and even $15 per week. … the average is close to $6 and $7….And so their $6 or $8 a week goes a long way and stay when they got there. … They still feast, rice that is the chief article. The Chinese laundryman always has his downtown apartments in the basement. Why this is cannot be explained except that basements are cleaner, less convenient, more unpleasant, and a good place for rats. It is a basement, and a more illy lit, worse ventilated, dank, and unhealthy place could scarcely be found. in fact, one is apt to think that John rents such a place because it is cheap. Not a picture adorns the walls.”

“Only the slips of paper with hen tracks on them are to be seen. This is Sam Lee’s bookkeeping according to Confucius. On one side of this nameless apartment are arranged “bunks” in seafaring style. The pallets are hard, the clothes rude, and the Chinaman loses what little of veneration we entertained when we entered the doorway . The kitchen is also the dining room, and the dining room, to economize is united with the drying room. The entire outfit is less comprised of a pair of rooms, the rent which is cheap, and the condition of which makes them uninhabitable by any but Chinamen.”

The method Chinese laundrymen used to moisten clothes for ironing was a frequent source of condemnation.

“The Celestial takes the water in his mouth and diffuses a gentle spray over the linen, while he puffs and fizzes and blows like a porpoise…With his pucked up mouth and the effervesing sound escaping from his lips, he reminds one of the Parisian cook in the French restaurants squirting grease over the top of a pot of hot water to give it a rich look and palatable to the throat of the lunch-room epicure.”


The Chinese laundryman was a strong stereotype that led to ridicule by whites. Laced with humor and hostility, images of an emasculated male were portrayed in the media. Savage political cartoons evoked violence toward Chinese laundrymen


wing wing starch box image

In 1922, the children’s section of the Los Angeles Times newspaper printed a cut-out toy of a “Chinese laundryman,” Lee Ling, that had moveable arms that could be attached to a broom and a wash tub lever.

Lee Ling C

Many similar mocking representations of the Chinese laundryman were pervasive in popular culture through pop songs, advertising images, and movies. These negative stereotypes fostered long lasting public attitudes that were detrimental to Chinese throughout the U. S. and Canada.

A White Approach to Running A Chinese laundry

In 1932, during the Great Depression two white men decided to take over the operation of Tom Sing’s  Chinese laundry in Kinston, North Carolina.  Times were hard then, as the men, an electrician and a printer, were both unemployed. Sing must have also had financial woes as he abandoned his laundry and its equipment intact.

1932 white run chin ldy kinston nc

I do not have any information about how successful this novel experiment involving the first whites to run a Chinese laundry, but judging from their mis-conception that the ‘approved Chinese style’ for a laundry was to gift customers with lily bulbs and tea, I suspect they did not last very long.

Chicago’s First Chinese Laundry?

Chicago's First Chinese Laundry?

A small news item in 1869 reported that Chicago was not only about to get a Chinese laundry, but a great one. Chicago merchants were recruiting 100 men from San Francisco, where many Chinese men work as house-servants in place of Irish women, referred to as “Bridgets.” However, in Paul Siu’s authoritative research, The Chinese Laundryman, the first Chicago Chinese laundry at 167 West Madison Street did not appear until 1872, a year following the Great Fire.  Perhaps, that date is close enough to the originally predicted date with the fire   delaying the planned 1869 opening.
Chinese laundries grew rapidly in Chicago as in other places across the country. Siu reported that Chicago had 18 Chinese laundries in 1874-5,  and that number doubled by the end of the decade. However, the growth did not mean that the Chinese were welcome. Often easy targets of assault and robbery, the laundryman did not have an easy life.
One of the more unusual and sinister attacks on laundrymen occurred in Chicago in 1884 when five young girls, aged 14-16, who called themselves “The Chinese Five” chloroformed Chinese laundrymen before robbing them.  They were arrested and fined $100 each, which was suspended on condition of good behavior. A number of Chinamen were arrested as well, presumably because some of the girls admitted “visiting Chinamen” in the back of the laundries while the others chloroformed and robbed the proprietors.