The Dirt on Laundry, and Why I Have No Excuses

I suck at doing laundry. Joining the crowds of lazy people around the world, I’ve become very complacent in performing a routine task that is easier than most of the other tasks I have to complete. At most, laundry takes about three hours, during which you do actual, physical work for about 30 minutes. But, something about the nature of laundry makes me so resistant to its proper completion.

Ask my roommate: sometimes, I have large stacks of clean clothes, and other times a hamper overflowing with dirty clothes. I leave things in the dryer, in an attempt not to fold them. I leave things in the washer, simply because I’ve forgotten their existence. I am not the only one experience laundry apathy. Based on the myriad of memes, Facebook statuses, and personal conversations I have had with fellow laundry non-enthusiasts, laundry apathy is a growing trend, inspiring the creation of laundry-based restaurants, bars, and even “Extreme Laundry” invented by these dudes.

In one of my recent (And, perhaps, strongest) attempts of avoidance, I began to wonder how people “in olden times” actually did laundry. I am challenged by the effort of putting clothes into a machine and taking them back out. What did people do before soap and running water? Through my research, I’ve learned that I should be beyond embarrassed at my own futile attempts at the task compared to the champions of clothes laundering of the past. So, without further ado, here is the skinny on the suds, the naked truth of laundry’s dirty details from the beginning until the magical laundromats of today.

8230733474_ff97844ccd_zPhoto Credit: Boston Public Library

It all started with the river, nature’s very own washing mechanism. Starting all the way back in the 14th century (see the picture on the right), stains on dirty garments were treated at home, then were taken to the river, where washerwomen literally beat the dirt out of them. In the beginning, rocks surrounding the river served a place to rid the attire of dirt. Next came long wooden bats, used to whack the dirt out of soiled clothing. Alternative methods included trampling the dirt out with bare feet or slapping it out by whacking the clothing itself across a surface. Even more interesting is that the cleansing product of choice until the 1800s was lye, usually a careful mix of ash and urine. The woman doing the washing worked very hard and knew a lot about how fabrics were constructed and how best to treat them. (Today, I consider not buying clothing if the washing instructions include hand washing or drying.) This washing process was strenuous and time consuming, and it would only happen once every few months so as not to interrupt the extensive amount of women’s daily chores.

An important note to include here is that laundry was undoubtedly an outdoor job for hundreds of years, even in sub-zero temperatures. The women would hire someone to carve them a hole in the ice and carry the water back to a shelter. The hard working washerwomen of St. Petersburg were reported to laugh, sing, and dance while washing in said conditions, and I can’t even make it out of my pajamas in the snow.

With the 19th century came a distinct process and new-fangled tools like a washboard with ridges and fancy 35 pound tubs. The four-day, eight-step process was one of the hardest household chores. First step was re-sewing and mending all of the torn fabric. Then, a one day pre-soak in warm water while also applying stain treatments. This part actually physically hurts me: women would then boil water and lye to as hot as their hands could handle, scrub until all of the dirt was gone, and repeat, reheating the water for each garment. They would boil the clothes in clean hot water and remove them with a laundry stick. If they were white, they would then go through a process of bluing to regain their whiteness and finally be laid to dry in the grass. I still count it as one of the hardest household chores, but mine involves more of a dump and a walk away.

It went from a household chore to a business as the modern technologies of washing machines were invented, and women began having the sole job of doing laundry. Laundry became a service rather than a chore, and it became simpler and easier to do.

In the 21st century, it is hard to imagine life without a washer and a dryer here in the United States. Laundry has become such a boring task in its simplicity and ease of completion. Don’t get me wrong; I hate doing it. But because it’s so easy, it feels like it shouldn’t have to be done. That is why I have been delighted at the recent trend that caters to people like me: laundromats that are for way more than just laundry.

45334151_d4a592b9ed_zPhoto Credit: Gideon

The trend started back in the 80s with a little place in Bozeman, Montana called Duds ‘n Suds.  This beauty of a shop opened in 1985 so locals could “fun, friendly, and affordable, atmosphere to wash and dry their laundry.” It was basically like a bar that served up cleanly clothes instead of fresh brewed alcohol. Today, it’s not only a high power laundromat but also a self-service car and pet wash. They might as well just add in some showers while they are at it so everything can be washed, including the people.

Then came the integration of food with BrainWash in San Francisco. After discovering a lack of a proper place to do laundry in San Francisco, owner Susan Schindler ditched her bar-owning dreams to make way for an innovative idea that would fulfill a dire local need: a laundromat with a café attached that has been popular ever since it opened its doors in 1989.

And so we have come to a true representation of what modern laundry has become in New York City’s latest laundry-centered creation: The Wash House. The amazing thing about The Wash House might actually be easier and more exciting laundry experience than doing laundry at home. Combining the finer points of a bar, café, coffee shop, and a laundromat into one, The Wash House is a full service experience like no clothes-cleaning service I’ve experienced. While having your laundry washed, dried, and folded, you can treat yourself artisanal sandwiches, beer, or coffee and a nice chat with a fellow human on their last day of clean clothes. Some have even suggested it might be a nice place to meet strangers in the city. Think about that: Laundry as a date… getting intimate while washing your intimates. What have we come to?

It’s a weird progression: Laundry growing from the hardest of household chores to a novelty in which business are created to be the most elaborate. I feel like I’m stuck in the middle: fortunate enough to have modern washers and dryers, and poor enough to not be able to spend the extra money to drink coffee and eat nice sandwiches while someone else does my laundry. I think the moral of the story is that I need to stop complaining about doing my laundry, considering it is how easy it is. Or maybe I just need to start coercing my roommate into bringing me food and coffee and doing my laundry all at the same time.

Either way, it is still important to remember, as the saying goes and the sign in front of The Wash House says, “Laundry Today or Naked Tomorrow.”

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