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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 356-357

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Book Review

Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940

Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940. By Arwen P. Mohun. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. x+348. $48.

Arwen Mohun has written a fascinating account of the rise, growth, and decline of a little-noticed industry. The history of steam laundries is that of "industrialization with a difference" (p. 72). Steam laundries depended for their success as much on their customers' social values and behavior as on technology and industrial processes. Theirs was also a business in which the customers were likewise the competition. Mohun aims to explore and explain the dichotomy between laundry done outside the home and laundry done inside. When and why did the family wash return to the home?

Factory owners turned a domestic process associated with women in the home into an industrial process (though one with elements of handwork) controlled by men. The machines these men used with most success were often patterned on industrial equipment rather than on the washerwoman's tools. For example, the equipment found in an infirmary laundry in Derbyshire in the early nineteenth century included a drum-style washing machine similar to machines intended for use in the mechanized textile industry, while two engineers in Nottingham founded a laundry company to exploit the use of a "centrifugal extractor" originally intended for refining sugar. A century later, machines very like these were found throughout factory laundries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rising standards of cleanliness provided the crucial cultural impetus for the growth of the industry. Dirt was increasingly associated with disease, and being unwashed was linked to a lack of respectability. Over the course of the nineteenth century both the British and American middle classes became "voracious consumers of cleanliness" (p. 32), with the starched white shirt becoming the most visible symbol of changed values. These values, when combined with vastly improved water supplies, increased urbanization, and worsening pollution, set the stage for the development of a new industry.

Mohun deftly explores the business of establishing a laundry, the design of the work processes, labor relations, and marketing and sales, as well as the development in both the United States and Britain of trade journals and associations. Laundry owners exchanged information and gained in professionalism, but they could not control their business processes as precisely as other industrialists. The customers' demand for laundry to be returned on a fixed schedule--to ensure the fresh, respectable white shirt for Sunday church services--left washing machines idle while ironing machines were overextended. This problem became harder to manage once unionization and factory legislation curtailed workers' hours. At the front [End Page 356] end of the laundering process, the laundry entrepreneur could not control the quality of the bundle the customer brought in. He had to devise complex systems to track each client's articles from dropoff to pickup or delivery. Finally, this was an industry that lived on its week-to-week receipts, had no inventory to store, and was particularly vulnerable to price wars.

The workforce in laundries was largely female in both countries, with management dominated by men. Mohun examines in detail the ways in which workers and their advocates shaped the industry though regulation and unionization. She also explores gender and racial relations (the latter mostly in the United States) and the transformation of work patterns as laundry work became more and more highly mechanized.

Steam laundries ceased to be ubiquitous in British and American towns by the 1950s, as consumers chose domestic washing machines over the commercial laundry. Factory owners fought hard against this trend for more than three decades, but a complex of social and economic factors defeated them in the end. Expanded consumer credit and widespread electrification sped the adoption of washing machines in the United States, while in Britain slower electrification, trade barriers, and the much cheaper gas- or...


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