Category Archives: Racist Material

Did Chinese “Create” the Laundry Business

Before the last half of the 19th century, most people throughout the world washed and ironed their own laundry, or had that chore done by domestic servants who also cooked meals and took care of young children.  Chinese immigrants in the U.S., and many other countries, may have “created” the laundry business. This occupation was not one that Chinese immigrant men practiced back in China where, as throughout the world, laundry was relegated to women.  Despite the unfamiliar, and probably humbling and humiliating, nature of this occupation, Chinese men turned to it out of necessity because racial discrimination closed them out of other occupations.

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Chinese came to dominate the hand laundry business for decades in the last half of the 19th century before the rise of steam laundries operated by whites. However, opposition to Chinese laundrymen came from two groups that were involved as domestics doing laundry for households, Irish and black washerwomen.

Irish washerwomen Versus Chinese laundrymen

In many eastern cities, Irish washerwomen supported their families by taking in household laundry, often because their husbands were unemployed. The growth of Chinese laundries was a threat, as illustrated by an 1879 play by Josh Hart.

 

The play, Ching Wing and His Laundry, described as a comedy, highlights the threat  posed by Chinese laundries to the livelihoods of Irish washerwomen.  In the opening scene of the short play, Mrs. H, an Irish washer woman, laments the loss of washing customers who gave their washing to the heathen Chinese like Ching Wing, who charged lower prices.

In the opening scene, Ching Wing is carrying a large bundle of clothing to be washed in his laundry, so he does not see the Irish washerwoman and accidentally bumps into her, knocking her down. Chin Wing attempts a lame apology which Mrs. H rejects,  “…ye are a disgrace to human nature.”

The next scene is in an Irish laundry where two Irish women complain about the loss of washing to the Chinese. “Oh it was a sad day when the monkeys left their native country and settled here.”

In the closing scene a woman customer of the Chinese laundry has summoned a policeman because the dog she brought with her to the laundry has disappeared.  She claimed that she found her dog’s skin here and “these nasty chinamen eating my dog.”

The policeman and the woman leave to get a warrant. Immediately, “All the Chinamen eat from bowls very quick…. Ching goes up and blows water over clothes and begins to iron…

The Irish return in numbers and a brawl breaks out between them and the Chinese laundrymen.

Black washerwomen Versus Chinese laundrymen

 Conflict developed between black washerwomen 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…”

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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.  When a Chinese laundryman showed up in Albany, Georgia, in 1899 he received death threats from black washerwomen unless he left town. Eventually these conflicts died down, in part because the Chinese laundries focused on men’s work clothes while black washerwomen dealt with washing family and household items.

White steam laundries Versus Chinese laundries

As the nation moved from an agrarian to an urban society in the last half of the 19th century, demand for laundry services increased and gave rise to more commercial laundries.

Chinese hand laundries relied on manual labor to wash and iron clothes.  Irons were heavy, 8 1/2 pounds of iron, that had to be heated periodically over hot coals to a temperature that was not too hot to avoid scorching the clothes.  As the temperature dropped, the irons had to be reheated after a short period before they could be effective.

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.

Eventually many Chinese laundries upgraded their equipment and acquired steam driven pressing machines.  Apparently, some manufacturers of steam laundry equipment were reluctant to sell to Chinese laundrymen who would be taking business away from white-owned laundries.  In a 1892 article that appeared in papers around the country,  an effort was made to prevent Chinese from acquiring steam driven equipment with the admonition by one manufacturer that purchasers of steam machines must promise never to allow them to “fall into the hands of the Chinese competitor.”

By the end of the 19th century, white steam laundry operators intensified their efforts to destroy all Chinese laundries. This goal is illustrated in several examples of the use of advertising that directly attacked the Chinese laundries. The above 1907 advertisement for Jet White Steam Laundry in Charleston, South Carolina, simply urges the avoidance of Chinese laundry in favor of  the Jet White laundry which claims to be “the Best.”

A 1915 Dothan, Alabama, white laundry went even further to oppose Chinese laundries. It used a no holds barred advertising campaign with images depicting Chinese laundrymen smoking opium and sleeping and eating in the laundry. The text of the ad below poses questions about whether customers want to have their laundry done in a Chinese laundry where eating and sleeping occurs in the same room as the clothes washing is done.  A concern is also raised over the fact that  the Chinese send most of the money they earn back to China rather than spending it locally.

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Washing Clothes Before Chinese (B.C.)

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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.

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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.

 

 

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Fun with The Chinese Queue

Caricatures were popular forms of ridicule used against Chinese, especially laundrymen, at the end of the 19th century.

In 1901, the St. Louis Republic published two “Chinese Family Robinson” cartoons. The one below imagines the acrobatic rope tricks that Chinamen devised with their queues.

fam robinson

The second one shows a more practical application in which the clever Chinamen are shown using their queues to create a clothesline for hanging laundry to dry.

1901 Chink Family Robinson laundry clotheline louis

In contrast to this  frivolous, yet insulting, approach, other drawings in popular publications were overtly hostile, depicting aggression and physical violence toward its target, Chinese laundrymen.

washerman must go cartoon LOC

harpers jan 29 1881

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White Steam Laundry Ads Against Chinese Laundries

Jet-white 1907 Charleston News

By the end of the 19th century, white steam laundry operators intensified their efforts to destroy all Chinese laundries.  This goal is illustrated in several examples of the use of advertising that directly attacked the Chinese laundries. The above 1907 advertisement for Jet White Steam Laundry in Charleston, South Carolina, simply urges the avoidance of Chinese laundry in favor of  the Jet White laundry which claims to be “the Best.”  It was a direct appeal, but avoided the extreme negativity of the 1915 Dothan, Alabama advertisement below.  This no holds barred ad used images depicting Chinese laundrymen smoking opium at the top of the ad and sleeping and eating in the laundry in the bottom of the ad.

In between these images, the text poses questions about whether customers want to have their laundry done in a Chinese laundry where eating and sleeping occurs in the same room as the clothes washing is done.  The issue changes from the physical features of the Chinese laundry to the concern that the Chinese send most of the money they earn back to China rather than spending it locally.

Finally, following up the point raised early in the ad about the Chinese never inviting customers to see the interior space of their laundries behind the front partition, the public is cordially invited to visit the Dothan Steam Laundry.

1915 dothan ala steam ldy ad April 30

In Washington, D. C., the Yale Steam Laundry ran two ads, one in 1897 and a different one in 1907 poking fun at Chinese laundries.

yale-laundry-dc-1897-and-1907-anti-chinese-ads

An interesting sidenote is the fate of the Yale Steam Laundry. It was very successful for many decades but finally closed in 1976.  The laundry building was saved and converted into upscale condominiums.   The building is listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

yale-condo

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Making War Against Chinese Laundries 1885

chinee laundryman never sleeps

 

The above sketch depicts the dismal working space within the typical Chinese laundry. It makes one wonder how the Chinese laundries became such a threat to American workers that they wanted laws to restrict the growth of Chinese laundries as illustrated below in 1885.

makewar on laundrie

 

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From Blatant to Latent Racism: Images of Chinese laundrymen

Racism against early Chinese immigrants was blatant and involved physical violence and damage to property.  As laundries were the prevalent occupation of Chinese, although not one they assumed by preference, racists used imagery of the helpless laundryman to symbolize all Chinese.  The images suggested how Chinese should be treated (viciously) and where they belonged (back in China) as exemplified in an 1880s advertisement for a washing machine manufacturer.

In contrast, after Chinese became more accepted in America after W. W. II, racism toward Chinese assumed a latent form disguised through a joking attitude.  One example is a  advertisement from about the 1950s or 60s for a Hoover washing machine.  The ad showed a group of befuddled-looking Chinese men surrounding the Hoover machine. It implicitly acknowledges Chinese laundry expertise, but he ad triumphantly claims that the machine has defeated the Chinese in their own domain.

A satirical approach is used in one more recent dig at the Chinese.  Claiming that China was demanding the inclusion of doing  laundry as an “Olympic event” for the 2008 Olympics in  Beijing, the spoof argued against the proposal on the grounds that Chinese would have an unfair advantage in this event,

Old stereotypes, like old soldiers, never die; but unlike old soldiers, they don’t even seem to fade away.

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American Media Use of Racist Imagery of Chinese Laundrymen

An animated cartoon by Max Fleisher in 1929 used stereotypical and derogatory imagery of Chinese laundrymen set to the lyrics of the iconic song “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” which depicted the Chinese with “almond eyes of brown” as opium smokers “driftin to and from in dreamy, dreamy Chinatown.”

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