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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 334-335

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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) 352pp. $48.00

Mohun uses the steam-laundry industry in Britain and the United States as a prism through which to view a multiplicity of relationships, ranging from technological change and business structure to industrial reform, trade unionism, and state regulation--all within a context of changing gender relations and the transformation of women's work both in and outside the home. Mohun sees commercial laundries as much more than new service industries. These enterprises, she observes, used technology and mechanization to create factories in which "owners on both sides of the Atlantic strove to emulate Henry Ford" (3). By the early twentieth century, what had essentially been a female skill (the laundress had to know how to treat various stains, how to handle different types of fabrics, and what chemical combinations to use) had become an unskilled, industrial occupation replete with new machinery, a division of labor, and assembly lines that required speed but eliminated individual judgement. In addition, what had been a private, domestic task now had the potential to become a public product.

Housewives, Mohun points out, universally hated doing the laundry. Any woman who could, hired other women to do the job. Indeed, laundresses traditionally counted among the most visible of female occupations. One would think that commercial laundries, which offered a mechanized, standardized, alternative to sorting, soaking, washing, wringing, drying, starching, and ironing might have proven a lucrative and attractive business. The story Mohun tells, however, is more complicated. Many women hesitated to turn over their linens, let alone their underwear, to strangers. Owners of commercial laundries soon found that "their customers were also their competitors" (1). In the southern United States, furthermore, race relations, together with traditional ideas about gender and domestic work, severely limited the ability of the industry to mechanize. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a [End Page 334] significant number of enterprising men invested in laundry machinery and on both sides of the Atlantic built an industry that employed large numbers of women, and became a cause célèbre for industrial reformers.

Mohun's comparative approach shows how ideas about trade regulation, unionization, and the role of the state were the product of a transatlantic debate about industrial policy well into the twentieth century. Although laundry workers in both Britain and the United States organized and, on occasion, staged successful strikes, unions were generally uninterested in the female workforce. Indeed, it was the laundry industry (for example, in the landmark 1908 United States Supreme Court ruling in Muller v. Oregon legitimizing the restriction of hours for women workers) that led reformers to look to state action rather than unionization to improve the dismal conditions of work. Technological innovation and industrial policy, Mohun argues, were the product of "a transatlantic conversation about how to ameliorate the problems of industrial capitalism in a way that was "democratic" and did not interfere with national economic well-being" (186). Despite the fact that the regulatory effort played out differently in the two nations, it is useful to be reminded of the larger context in which such policy debates occurred.

Steam Laundries is a perfect book for those interested in interdisciplinary history. It artfully melds technological history, business history, cultural history, labor history, and comparative history, all with a sensitivity to race and gender, resulting in a book that will be of interest to a broad set of readers.


Susan Levine
University of Illinois, Chicago



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