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.
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…”
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.