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.

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