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History of laundry
Laundry was first done in streams, letting the stream carry away the materials which could cause stains and smells. Laundry may still be done this way in some less industrialized areas and rural regions. Agitation helps remove the dirt, so the laundry is often rubbed, twisted, or slapped against flat rocks. Wooden bats or clubs could be used to help with beating the dirt out. These were often called washing beetles or bats and could be used on a rock by a stream (a beetling-stone), on a block (battling-block), or on a board. They were once common across Europe and were also used by settlers in North America.
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. Soap, a compound made from lye (from wood-ash) and fat, is an ancient and very common laundry aid. However, modern washing machines typically use powdered or liquid laundry detergent in place of more traditional soap.
When no streams were available, laundry was done in water-tight vats or vessels. Sometimes large metal cauldrons were filled with fresh water and heated over a fire; boiling water was even more effective than cold in removing dirt. The washboard, a corrugated slab of a hard material such as metal, replaced rocks as a surface for loosening soil.
Once clean, the clothes were wrung out — twisted to remove most of the water. Then they were hung up on poles or clotheslines to air dry, or sometimes just spread out on clean grass.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution completely transformed laundry technology.
The mangle (wringer US) was developed in the 18th century — two long rollers in a frame and a crank to revolve them. A laundry-worker took sopping wet clothing and cranked it through the mangle, compressing the cloth and expelling the excess water. The mangle was much quicker than hand twisting. It was a variation on the box mangle used primarily for pressing and smoothing cloth.
Meanwhile 18th century inventors further mechanized the laundry process with various hand-operated washing machines. Most involved turning a handle to move paddles inside a tub. Then some early 20th century machines used an electrically powered agitator to replace tedious hand rubbing against a washboard. Many of these 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.
Laundry drying was also mechanized, with clothes dryers. Dryers were also spinning perforated tubs, but they blew heated air rather than water.
Chinese laundries in North America
In the United States and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century, the occupation of laundry worker was heavily identified with Chinese Americans. Discrimination, lack of English-language skills, and lack of capital kept Chinese Americans out of most desirable careers. Around 1900, one in four ethnic Chinese men in the U.S. worked in a laundry, typically working 10 to 16 hours a day.
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.
The CHLA went on to function as a more general civil rights group; its numbers declined strongly after it was targeted by the FBI during the Second Red Scare (1947–1957).
Washing machines and dryers are now fixtures in homes around the world. In some parts of the world, including the USA, Canada, and Switzerland, apartment buildings and dormitories often have laundry rooms, where residents share washing machines and dryers. Usually the machines are set to run only when coins in appropriate amounts are inserted in a coin slot. Those without home machines or access to laundry rooms must either wash their clothes by hand or visit a commercial laundromat.
In parts of Europe, such as the UK, apartment buildings with laundry rooms are uncommon, and each apartment has its own washing machine.
Dry cleaning is any cleaning process for clothing and textiles using an organic solvent rather than water. The solvent used is typically tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene), abbreviated "perc" in the industry and "dry-cleaning fluid" by the public. Dry cleaning is necessary for cleaning items which would otherwise be damaged by water and soap or detergent. It may be used if hand washing— needed for some delicate fabrics — is excessively laborious.