Who Did Laundry in America Before the Chinese Came?

Chinese laundries in the U. S. and Canada started sometime in the mid-19th century. Excluded from many occupations, the first business they were allowed to operate was the laundry and by the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese laundries were so ubiquitous that they became the stereotype for Chinese.

But who did the washing of laundry for people who could afford to hire others to perform this essential but labor-intensive chore?  In many areas, black women who were domestic servants for white families did the family wash as well as cook, clean house, and take care of young children.  In addition some black washerwomen picked up laundry from white homes to take back to their neighborhoods to wash and iron before delivering the clean laundry to their owners. Much less is known about the black washerwomen than about the Chinese laundrymen.  When the Chinese began to dominate the laundry business there was tension between black washerwomen and Chinese laundrymen, and even strikes or threats of strikes by the washerwomen.  The conflict was short-lived as the Chinese laundries dealt mainly with articles of men’s clothing such as businessmen’s shirts and collars (detachable, in those early days) or men’s work clothes while black washerwomen dealt more with family items such as linens, women and children’s clothing.

A multi-media theatrical production, The Clothesline Muse, consisting of dance, song, and art developed by jazz singer Nneena Freelon pays tribute to the black washerwomen who helped support their families through the arduous labor of doing laundry for white families.  Lana Garland, a filmmaker, is making a documentary about black washerwomen and The Clothesline Muse.  Freelon and Garland wanted to place their story in a wide societal context that included the Chinese laundries and invited me for an interview to gain more insight and information as I described here.

The Clothesline Musesfr post on Clotheline muse

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