During the research and writing of our laundry exhibit, two themes quickly came to the forefront: Laundry can be difficult, unpleasant work, and it’s much better to get someone else to do it for you. Today’s artifact will be a familiar one to many of you; those who don’t recognize it instantly will soon see its worth, for who among us has not, at least once, attempted to have our parent, child, sibling, spouse, or roommate do our laundry?
This is an Airway laundry case, from the early 1950s. It measures 21″ x 12″ by 6.5″, and is made of brown fiberboard, with metal-reinforced corners and a double cotton-twill strap. A 1950 advertisement for a variety of Airway cases describes this option as a “21-Inch Heavy Fiber Laundry Case. It’s reinforced with riveted metal corners and will withstand a weight of 350 pounds, so it will travel far and often for you. Comes in brown. $3.95.”
Laundry cases and boxes such as this one were designed for sending laundry through the mail. The boxes were reusable, and postage costs were often cheaper than local laundry services or Laundromats – such convenience! Just send your dirty clothes home to Mother, and she’ll send clean clothes back in the same box! Though not exclusively used by college students, this system was certainly popular on campuses around the country, sometimes making up the bulk of a school’s – or even town’s – postal business. By the 1970s, home (and college) laundry equipment had improved enough, and was common enough, that the practice faded, although I bet there are still some college kids who mail their laundry home.*
Our example was donated by Pat Herman Douglas, a long-time county resident (and MCHS library volunteer) who grew up in Washington, DC and attended Western Maryland College in Westminster, Md., class of 1954. The box lid includes a metal mailing label holder; though the last-used postage stamp is too faded to read, another stamp gives us the date “Feb 8 1954,” and the typed address label (which includes this helpful fact, “More people are using Airway Laundry Cases than any other Laundry Case”) shows us that its final journey was from the Herman home in DC back to the college. As recommended by the July 1953 Official Postal Guide, both the lid and the case are also labeled with Miss Herman’s home address.
The box is still sturdy and stable, but it clearly got some use over the years; this wasn’t a novelty item, or one of those things you think you’ll need and then never end up using. The donor provided us with some great info about laundry during her college career, 1950-54: The school didn’t have student-use laundry facilities, so while you could take your sheets and linens to be washed at the school laundry, you were on your own for everything else. There was a Laundromat in Westminster, a long walk away; you might take your easy-to-wash whites (e.g., socks and underwear) there, especially if you could get someone to give you a ride, but for other things – Pat cited wool sweaters, specifically – it was easier and cheaper to mail them off to be done at home, where someone had the expertise and time to do the laundry right.
Western Maryland College – now McDaniel College – has a lot of its archival material scanned and available on the internet. I’ve had an entertaining time today, looking up “laundry” and “laundromat” in the 1950-1954 catalogs, yearbooks, and newspapers; indeed, one of the patrons in the 1954 yearbook is the “Laundromat,” and the student newspapers include several references to the need for improved laundry facilities. (There’s even an envious piece in the October 3, 1950 edition of The Gold Bug about a new dorm, equipped with Bendix washers, at Gettysburg College.)
Unlike many of our no-longer-common artifacts, laundry cases are fairly well represented on the internet. The National Postal Museum has a nice blog post about cases from the USPS perspective, and memories of laundry cases are included in student-life stories and transcripts from colleges such as St. Olaf, Wellesley, and the University of Iowa. Laundry really is everywhere.
*(Instead of simply waiting until the end of the semester, and bringing it all home at once.)