Laundry


Laundry has been part of history since humans began to wear clothes, so the methods by which different cultures have dealt with this universal human need are of interest to several branches of scholarship. Laundry work has traditionally been highly gendered, with the responsibility in most cultures falling to women (known as laundresses or washerwomen). The Industrial Revolution gradually led to mechanised solutions to laundry work, notably the washing machine and later the tumble dryer. Laundry, like cooking and child care, is done both at home and by commercial establishments outside the home.
The job of doing the laundry was reserved for women, who washed all their family's laundry. Washerwomen (laundresses) took in the laundry of others, charging by the piece. As such, wash-houses were an obligatory stop in many women's weekly lives and became a sort of institution or meeting place. It was a women-only space where they could discuss issues or simply chat. Indeed, this tradition is reflected in the Catalan idiom "fer safareig" (literally, "to do the laundry"), which means to gossip.
Meanwhile, 19th century inventors further mechanized the laundry process with various hand-operated washing machines to replace tedious hand rubbing against a washboard. Most involved turning a handle to move paddles inside a tub. Then some early 20th century machines used an electrically powered agitator. Many of these washing machines were simply a tub on legs, with a hand-operated mangle on top. Later the mangle too was electrically powered, then replaced by a perforated double tub, which spun out the excess water in a spin cycle.
New York City had an estimated 3,550 Chinese laundries at the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1933, with even this looking to many people like a relatively desirable business, the city's Board of Aldermen passed a law clearly intended to drive the Chinese out of the business. Among other things, it limited ownership of laundries to U.S. citizens. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association tried fruitlessly to fend this off, resulting in the formation of the openly leftist Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (CHLA), which successfully challenged this provision of the law, allowing Chinese laundry workers to preserve their livelihoods.
Various chemicals may be used to increase the solvent power of water, such as the compounds in soaproot or yucca-root used by Native American tribes, or the ash lye (usually sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) once widely used for soaking laundry in Europe. Soap, a compound made from lye and fat, is an ancient and common laundry aid. Modern washing machines typically use synthetic powdered or liquid laundry detergent in place of more traditional soap.