Washing Clothes Before Chinese (B.C.)


Who did laundry work before the Chinese came to the United States and began to open laundries all over the county?  Wealthy people had domestic servants who did this laborious work for them.  Before slavery ended, in the South many black washerwomen toiled for white masters, with washing and ironing clothes only one of their many chores. Later, black washerwomen continued doing laundry as a source of income for their families.  Many felt they were not adequately paid or fairly treated by whites.  Black washerwomen organized to threaten small strikes as early as 1866 in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1877 in Galveston, Texas, and on a larger scale in 1881 in Atlanta where several thousand black washerwomen protested plans to impose higher license fees.  None of these strikes were especially effective in improving their income as whites resorted to  counterattacks such as raising rents of black tenants. White steam laundries were too powerful as they were more efficient timewise, as noted in an 1881 Macon newspaper article describing the facilities and operations of a new white-owned steam laundry.

Screen Shot 2014-04-01 at 10.05.11 AM

As if having modern washing facilities were not enough to crush the threat of a strike for higher wages by black washerwomen, one steam laundry aroused the fear of disease if clothes were washed by black washerwomen.

anti black washerwomen AVOID THE RISK

There was also conflict between blacks and the growing  number of Chinese laundrymen by the 1870s.  In Galveston, Texas, black washerwomen protested against the Chinese saying they had no business coming here taking work away from us.  One woman threatened, “Mr. Slam Sling Chinaman you better sling your shirt short because we mean what we say…”  In Lapeer, Michigan, a Chinese laundryman was given three days by black washerwomen to leave town.  They threatened to cut off his queue unless he complied.  As late as 1899 when a Chinese laundryman showed up in Albany, Georgia, black  washerwomen threatened him with death unless he left town.

White laundry owners condemned both black and Chinese laundry competitors.  An article in the St. Albans, Vermont, paper in 1872 accused black washerwomen of  matching their Chinese rivals in deceptive business practices to increase their profits.

1872 Shrewd Washerwomen; Washingt  Ah Sin; Deception; Exorbitant; Unsuspicious;  January 31, 1872   St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, VT)   Page- 3

An 1882 Atlanta newspaper article expressed surprise that a city as large as Atlanta had no Chinese laundries left as all the Chinese laundrymen in Atlanta had left the city.

no washee atl

A white steam laundry owner suggested that the black washerwomen were too much of a match for the Chinese who could not compete with their low prices.

The threats of Black washerwomen toward Chinese did not escalate and were more vocal than physical in nature. Friction lessened perhaps because Chinese laundries concentrated on washing work  apparel of men whereas black washerwomen primarily did  laundry of women, children, and household items.   White steam laundries proved to be a bigger threat to both the black washerwomen and Chinese laundrymen than the latter two were to each other.



The Last Sam Lee Laundry?

One of the most prevalent names for Chinese laundries has been “Sam Lee Laundry.”  On a personal note, I grew up in one in Macon, Georgia, and I was surprised to later discover similarly named Chinese laundries all across North America.  “Sam Lee” was not usually the name of the proprietor of such laundries, even though in U. S. Census records you can find a few  “Sam Lees” listed as the operator of a Chinese laundry.  Actually “Sam Lee” is the transliteration of the Chinese for “triple profits,” an example of wishful thinking on the part of the laundryman who chose such a name.  But many customers, as well as some census enumerators, just assumed that the owner’s name was indeed, “Sam Lee.”

Today, there are very few Chinese laundries left, Sam Lee or otherwise named, for many reasons. Recently I discovered via the web that a Sam Lee Laundry was still in business in Lambertville, a small New Jersey town near Philadelphia.  The 1910 census records show that a laundry at 12 Church Street was run by a Chinese “named” Sam Lee, although as noted above, that may not have been his actual name.  In the old photograph below of Church Street from I guess around the 1950s, you can’t see the laundry, looking toward the historic Presbyterian church at the end of the street, but the second photograph shows the laundry as it currently stands at 21 Church Street on the opposite side of its earlier location at No. 12.

Lambertville-Sam Lee Ldy on CHURCH st with church at end

sam Lee l lambertv  photo

Eventually, immigrants from China, Mon Wai Louie and his wife, Chun Nui, became its owners around 1950 and retained its name as Sam Lee Laundry.  A Trenton, New Jersey, newspaper article featured the Louie family in a 1974 story about how their family celebrates Chinese New Year.

Sam Lee ldy family 1974

That was 40 years ago.  Mon Wai Louie and his wife certainly would have retired by now.  I was amazed it was still in business as Chinese laundries faced a serious threat from the widespread availability of home washing equipment, as noted in a 1987 newspaper article in which Mon Wai Louie was interviewed about the future of Chinese laundry businesses.

1987 pt 2 Sam Lee

Somehow, the Sam Lee Laundry in Lambertville managed to stay in business.  But I wondered if it was still run by Chinese.  Perhaps a non-Chinese had acquired the laundry and simply retained its original Chinese name.  My curiosity led me to phone the laundry to find out. I discovered that  Chinese still ran the Sam Lee Laundry.  John Louie, one of the six Louie children, was its fourth generation owner and continuing the family laundry business, which had been operating for over a century!  I don’t know if there are any other Sam Lee Laundries operating today, but this one is, and it  could well be the very last one in existence.

Sam Lee Laundry, Champaign, IL (from 1920 or earlier until 1970s)

Sam Lee Ldy, Champaign

Sam Lee Laundry was one of the two most common names, the other being Sing Lee,  for Chinese laundries judging from business directories.  “Sam Lee” actually refers to a concept that can be loosely translated as “threefold profits” and not as the name of the proprietor of the business.  However, many customers would assume it was his name and the Chinese laundryman would get ‘stuck’ with that name and use it instead of his real Chinese name which, being unfamiliar to non-Chinese, was harder for customers to remember.

The Sam Lee Laundry in the above photograph taken in around 1975 in Champaign, Illinois, may have already gone out of business as did many Chinese laundries due to competition with large white steam laundries and the widespread availability of home washing equipment.  A For Sale sign is visible  in the window, and the store ‘looks’ to be empty, notwithstanding the “OPEN” sign on the front door. In any case, by 2008, this building at 213 S. Neil Street definitely was no longer a laundry even though the building  still stood, even if barely, as evidenced by this comparative ‘then and now’ photograph posted on Flickr.com.

Out of curiosity, I checked census records identifying Chinese living in Champaign, IL.  in 1920, there was a Chinese named “Sam Lee” at 109 S. Neil Street (the building in the photos was identified as being at 213 S. Neil, but it is conceivable that the city renumbered buildings at some time and that the two addresses could have been the same building) who had a Chinese partner and 3 Chinese lodgers.  All were listed as laundrymen (not shown in the truncated census record sheet).  Unfortunately I could not access the 1930 census and in the most recent 1940  census (records are sealed for 70 or maybe 73?) years), the laundry had changed hands with different owners.

1920 cens Sam Lee ldy Neil St CHampaign

Sam Lee had an interesting claim in his 1920 ad in a University of Illinois Chinese student publication, Young China, for his laundry, “Cheapest and Best in Town,” that suggests he quickly assimilated to American promotional hype!

Cheapest AND Best

Connections with the Past with A Modern Tool, Facebook

Little could I foresee that when I posted this photograph in my previous post  showing men having a lunch break inside a large room with a pinup calendar on the wall  that someone (Raymond Chong) would respond by sending me the second photograph of 11 Chinese men seated at a make shift table having a meal together.

laundry workers lunch Balch museum 1980s

Sunday gathering of lonely bachelors on Gold Mountain Santa Barbara

I posted it on a Facebook page that has many Chinese contacts to see what types of guesses people might make about the story behind  the photograph. Little did I expect someone (Kelvin Han Yee) to immediately reply and correctly describe the scene as a gathering of bachelor laundrymen in the area surrounding Santa Barbara at a centrally located laundry on a Sunday. (It was a common practice all over the country for laundrymen to congregate in some central site on a Sunday when their laundries were closed before returning to their own towns where each labored long hours the rest of the week in their own laundry.)

An even bigger surprise was learning from Kelvin that he had a copy of the same photograph (with different cropping) that his father owned, which he sent to me, as shown below.

kelvins copy sun tong laudnry gp

This is a rare and poignant photograph that vividly captured a rare moment of companionship with fellow Chinese for these men, many who were the only Chinese in the towns where their laundries were located.  On these occasions they got to renew acquaintances, talk about their homeland, eat, maybe smoke opium, and sometimes gamble, which led to problems with the law from time to time.

Chinese Bachelor Laundrymen on Their “Day Off”

            I was lucky to find the fascinating  photograph below, although I am frustrated in not knowing where it was taken or by whom.  It seems to be lunchtime for middle aged and older Chinese men who probably worked in either a laundry or restaurant in a  city with a sizable Chinese population.  Laundries were generally smaller operations and could involve only two or three men at most whereas a large restaurant  in a city like New York or San Francisco would need more workers to operate.  Seeing the photograph, which is beautifully composed either by design or accident,  heightened my awareness of what an invaluable opportunity these work breaks provided for these “bachelors” who had little time to enjoy the company of fellow countrymen. The virtual absence of Chinese women in the first waves of immigrants  ensured that  most of the men were bachelors and many of those who were married had left their wives and in many cases, children, behind in China.


          Hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese immigrants worked in laundries  and restaurants from the late 19th century well into the middle of the next century.  Virtually every small town in every state had at least one Chinese laundry, often operated by only one or two men, often relatives such as father and son, uncle and nephew, brothers, cousins or men from the same villages in Guangdong.  Initially, Chinese restaurants served only Chinese as non-Chinese generally did not find Chinese food appetizing. However, once Chinese food gained acceptance, small family restaurants serving Americanized Chinese dishes sprang up all over the country.

Work hours were long, and their days were lonely.  They would have only day off each week, and for laundrymen, that day would be Sunday.  To stem their loneliness, Chinese who lived far from Chinese communities in towns where they were the only or one of the few Chinese would congregate with other bachelor laundrymen from other nearby towns if they were “fortunate” enough to live within short travel distances  from a central site like Atlanta for those in the Southeast, Denver in the Rocky mountains, Chicago in the midwest, Dallas in the Southwest.  They might gamble, indulge in opium smoking, or just enjoy a meal and the company of  other lonely laundrymen.

I posted the photograph on Facebook to see if any of my Chinese contacts knew more about source of the image.  So far, no one has offered any information, but a friend, Raymond Douglas Chong in Houston, sent me a photograph that on the surface, is very similar, except for one important difference.    These 11 Chinese are also gathered for a meal, although it is interrupted to have a group photograph taken by a 12th person, who I assume was another Chinese man.  However, these men do not look like they were taking a rushed lunch break as in the first photograph especially since at least two are wearing neckties and the others do not appear to be wearing work clothes as the men in the first photograph do.


              This photograph was taken in the Sun Tong Laundry in Santa Barbara, California sometime in the 1930s.  It would be unlikely that all of the men worked at this one laundry.   It is more plausible that they lived in other parts of the city and in nearby towns where all of them had their own laundry.  On Sundays when their laundries were closed, they would have welcomed the chance to gather at a central location for socializing and enjoying a meal before they had to resume their labors for the following week.

According to Raymond Chong who kindly gave me the photograph with permission to post it, these men all worked in laundries. They were kinsmen who all came from the same village in China.  The photograph captures a Sunday gathering for a meal and companionship at the Sun Tong Laundry owned by Sun Yoke Tong, Raymond’s maternal grandfather.

“The Yee Clansmen worked long hours during the week. They faced racial discrimination with little opportunities for upward mobility. They were separated from their wives and children in China, especially during the Civil War in China and World War II. It was an insular society of bachelors in Chinatown. As a result, the men socialized together and closely bonded during their free times, usually on Sunday’s afternoons and evenings at Sun Tong Laundry on 30 Cota Street . They ate communal meals, shared stories, played games, and gambled. They wrote letters to their loved ones in China.”

Sun Tong Laundry, Santa Barbara 20

              Similar gatherings of lonely Chinese bachelor laundrymen occurred on Sundays across the country in towns, large and small. In larger cities Chinese might congregate at a family association hall or a  headquarters for  a chapter of  the Hip Sing Association or the  On Leong Merchants Association  whereas in small towns, laundrymen working would periodically journey from as far as 100 miles away to these gatherings at a  centrally located town.  Gambling at these meetings was a favorite pastime for some of them, and possibly, opium smoking.  Police would make raids and Chinese would be arrested and fined as shown below in a Philadelphia raid in 1944.

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 11.28.35 AM           Source of Gambling Raid Photograph: Balch Museum

 Many other raids on Chinese gambling occurred as described below when Atlanta police arrested 25  Chinese laundrymen in 1902 and when 9 laundrymen, most from out-of-town, were fined for Sunday gambling in a Trenton, New Jersey, laundry.

1902 atl gambling raid

1917 Trenton 9 Sunday gamblers at ldy fined