Our exhibit on laundry closes this coming Sunday, January 12; visit now, before all our lovely starched collars, blued petticoats, and terrifyingly complex laundry tools go back into storage!  In the meantime, here’s a look at a few, final laundry-related items that didn’t make it into the exhibit.

t0966ac-2This fringed linen hand towel is embroidered, in a charmingly free-hand style, with the word “LAUNDRY.”  It has the look of a once-good towel (it even has a stamped, numerical laundry mark, indicating it was sent out to be cleaned) which has now been down-graded to use in the laundry room; lest someone confuse it with a guest-worthy towel, it’s been conveniently marked with its function and place. (And yes, I realize it’s somewhat ironic that it really needs to be ironed.)   Early 20th century; donated by the Poole sisters.

***

Many of the helpful laundry-related tips to be found in magazines and household manuals relate to the problem of small articles going missing.  A subscriber submitted this piece of advice to Good Housekeeping’s Book of Menus, Recipes, and Household Discoveries (1922): “Avoid loss of handkerchiefs (and of temper as well)” by basting them together before sending them out to the laundry.  (The contributor adds, “Of course, they are returned unironed, but who would not be willing to press them out rather than not to have them returned to you at all, particularly in these days of high-priced linens!”)  Stockings are also prone to loss, which – as anyone with a pile of lonely, mismatched socks knows – is particularly vexing.  The Ladies’ Home Journal “What Other Women Have Found Out” column for May 1907 included this reader-submitted tip:

LHJ 5-07 reader tips“Sewing pairs of stockings together before washing them will help the busy mother.  It does not interfere with the washing, and when they have been ironed it is a great help to find them all sorted and mated.  A snip of the scissors releases them.”

Our collections include many batches of basted-together collars, handkerchiefs, and stockings – that final “snip of the scissors” not yet achieved – including this pair of fancy cotton stockings, which are still sewn together at the top. Early 20th century, donated by Elisabeth Mast Buck.

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***

And finally, one of my favorite discoveries while researching this exhibit: a wonderfully modern-sounding article from the January 1926 issue of Women’s Home Companion.  In “Charting the Seas of Matrimony,” Frances Duncan Manning (1877-1972), author of several books on gardening and frequent contributor to women’s magazines in the 1910s and 1920s, argued that “Where [husband and wife] are both at work a scrupulous fairness in the division of labors is vital.”  Manning uses the household chores of cooking and laundry to illustrate her point, which is why the article caught my laundry-attuned eye.  If an unmarried professional young woman has been taking care of her own wardrobe, she may see no reason why her new husband can’t do the same for his own – and if he blithely assumes she’ll provide his beloved “well-laundered shirts, mended socks, [and] exquisitely pressed trousers” as if by magic, the matrimonial seas will be choppy indeed.  Manning sums up her argument in a way that makes a fair division of labor seem like a positive thing (hooray, independence!) for everyone: “The corollary to economic independence of women is domestic independence for men.”  In other words, everyone should know how to do their own laundry.

split the work

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A good housekeeper keeps track of the household linens.  When was that tablecloth last used?  Which pillowcase needs mending? Did all the sheets come back from the laundress?  And whose towel is that, anyway? As Sidney Morse, author of Household Discoveries (1908), remarked, “All fabrics will wear better if not used continually, but allowed to rest at intervals . . . linen and other articles are often mislaid or stolen when sent to laundries, and sometimes taken from the line or blown away when spread on the grass to bleach.” Advice books and magazines from the 19th and 20th centuries suggest a variety of methods for inventory management, such as keeping a memorandum book, or tacking a list to the inside of the closet door. However, towels and sheets are not noted for their individuality.  The easiest way to maintain control is to mark them, either in embroidery or ink.

Elizabeth Ellicott Lea (1797-1858) of Sandy Spring wrote a cookbook, Domestic Cookery: Useful Receipts and Hints to Young Housekeepers, and published it herself in 1845.  The book was popular, and eventually went through 19 editions.  Our copy, published in 1856, includes this helpful tidbit on page 208:

House Linen. Have a book in which to set down all the bed and table linen, towels and napkins; every article of which should be marked and numbered, and counted at least once a month.”

I particularly like this piece of advice because it goes so nicely with these two artifacts, donated by Lea’s great-granddaughter Isabel Stabler Moore: a pair of pillowcases, marked respectively “M.L. No. 2″ and “M.L. No. 6.”

both cases
These linen cases are handsewn. Number 6 is larger, 33″ x 18″, with attached twill tapes to close it around the pillow.  Number 2 measures 28″ x 16.5″, is made of a slightly coarser linen, and shows more evidence of use; it is stained and mended.  Both cases are carefully marked in ink (which has created a slight stain around each set of initials).  The donor told us they were made and used by her grandmother – Betsy Lea’s daughter – Mary Lea Stabler (1822-1888) of Sandy Spring.  It’s worth noting, however, that the initials don’t actually match:

ML 2 and 6
Researcher Mary Robare* kindly provided us with a photo of Mary Lea Stabler’s embroidered initials, on the Pidgeon Family Quilt.  The form of the M there matches – or at least is closer to – our pillowcase No. 6 … assuming, of course, that Mary embroidered the quilt signature herself.

"M.L.S." embroidered on the Pidgeon Family Quilt, in the collections of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; photo copyright Mary Robare.

“M.L.S.” embroidered on the Pidgeon Family Quilt, in the collections of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; photo copyright Mary Robare.

At any rate, the two cases were marked by two different people, whoever they were. Did other family members mark them for Mary, as a gift, or just to give her a hand?  Was one of the cases made, marked, and/or used by Martha Lea, Mary’s sister – or by someone else entirely?  Initials can be deceptive; some women chose their middle name over their maiden name, or put their final initial in the center of the mark, or even added their husband’s first initial before their own.  A third pillowcase in this donation is marked “E.W.S. No. 6″; we haven’t been able to trace E.W.S., thanks in part to these issues.  However, based on the donor’s genealogy, it seems likely that one or both of the M.L. cases belonged to Mary Lea Stabler, following her mother’s published advice.

Household linens were not the only items that required marking.  Anything that was going to be sent out to the laundry would benefit from an identifying laundry mark; our collections include gloves, collars, shirts, aprons, dresses, and underthings that are marked in ink with initials and names, or have pre-made name tapes sewn inside.  For example, we have a pair of black cotton knit stockings, donated by Mrs. Jack Stone; each stocking has an attached strip of twill tape on which is written in ink “M. Clements No. 2.”

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Mary Elizabeth Clements (1865-1962) of Rockville married Lee Offutt in 1888; awesomely, she won a Discretionary Premium for her knit stockings (including these??) at the 1889 Rockville Fair.  She must have had more than one pair of black stockings (since this is pair number two), and she may even have made them herself; I don’t know where she sent her laundry, but she clearly wanted to be sure she got all her belongings back in good order.

Laundry exhibit status: Both Domestic Cookery and Household Discoveries are on display in the exhibit, through January 12, 2014.  Though Mary Lea Stabler’s pillowcases and Mary Clements Offutt’s stockings are not included, there are plenty of other examples of laundry marks to be seen.

*By the way, there’s a new Sandy Spring Quilt installment on Mary’s blog, Quaker Quilts.

So tell me, gentlemen, what style of collar did you choose for today?  Detachable or attached?  High-stand or low-stand? Starched or soft?  Linen, cotton, silk, or celluloid? Polished finish or dull? Stand-up, turn down, or wing?

Just a few options from the 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Just a few options from the 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Regardless of these options, there’s one universal factor: the collar must be clean.  The detachable collar, legend has it, was invented in the 1820s when a New York housewife named Hannah Montague removed her husband’s collar from his shirt in order to launder it more easily.  The collars and cuffs of mens’ shirts needed extra care; through much of the 19th century fashion demanded a stiff, starched appearance, and anyway those parts of a shirt are more vulnerable to everyday grime and debris (e.g., ink, hair oil…).  The work of the laundress or laundryman was a little easier when these fiddly bits could be rubbed, scrubbed, starched, and ironed separately from the shirt itself, hence the introduction of collarless shirts and detachable collars, cuffs, and even shirtfronts.  By the mid 20th century, however, men’s fashions had changed, and stain-resistant, wrinkle-free fabrics were introduced. Attached collars became the norm, and a high starched collar is now generally worn only on formal occasions.

We have a number of late 19th-early 20th century collars in our collections, representing only a small portion of the almost dizzying array of style options available to a gentleman of fashion. (If you need a visual, here’s Lloyd Coates, Jr., of Sugarland in a wing-tip collar, or do an online image search for the Arrow Collar Man.) Because collars were so persnickety, they are often mentioned in laundry how-to guides, household hints, and personal accounts of housewives and laundresses. Starching was a messy business, added on to the heavy work of the rest of the laundry, and the sheer numbers of small white pieces – collars, cuffs, handkerchiefs, gloves, diapers, &c. – generated by the average household could be overwhelming. The simplest solution was to send them out to a professional.  Many women did their best to divest themselves of the laundry chore altogether, but when that wasn’t possible, the next best thing was to send out the menfolk’s collars and cuffs.

trio of collarsNaturally, there were various inventions and discoveries that tried to mitigate the problem.  The three collars above (shown au naturel at left, and held together with collar studs at right) present a continuum of starchiness, as it were, starting with the Arrow “Prom” style wing-tip in the back; this one is starched into shape, with the necessary folded points.  The other two are relaxed enough to store flat: First, a Van Heusen collar (in the “Van Hart” style), patented in 1921, which includes the printed instructions “NO STARCH   IRON FLAT WHILE DAMP.”  (This one is in the center in the lefthand photo above, and on the right – resting on its points – in the righthand photo.)

T567a 1Despite these protestations the collar has, in fact, been starched, which may point to the inadequacy of the patented technique, described by the inventor as “a collar sufficiently stiff to maintain its upright shape without the employment of starch and nevertheless sufficiently pliable, by reason of the introduction of reinforcing threads in the fabric to receive and maintain a curvilinear set appropriate to the wearer’s use. . . as applied to a collar of the turn-over type.” (Patent # 1,383,694.)

The third option in the photos above is a “Hempstead” style Arrow collar, probably from the mid to late 1920s, which proclaims itself “A FLEXIBLE STARCHED COLLAR.”

T567d 1(Again, despite the instructions, it is currently in an unstarched state, so it gives a nice contrast to the stiffness of its friends.)  Though I suspect that these manufacturer innovations were less about the laundress’s time and efforts and more about the wearer’s comfort, the printed instructions nevertheless provide a hint of the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into a gentleman’s attire.

T2078Other possibilities included celluloid (plastic) collars, “washable” and easily wiped clean.  Or, one could also simply avoid the laundering altogether by using disposable collars.  The Reversible Collar Company, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of several paper collar manufacturers in the late 19th and early 20th century.  This package of ten “Linene” collars (“Plaza” style), circa 1910, provides instructions that explain their appeal: “Wear both sides then throw away.”  The cotton-faced paper collars maintained a clean, polished and starched appearance (see below) for a little while, and then could be thrown away with no regrets.

T2078 collar 4

In case you – like me – have never attempted to starch something in your life and require a little more proof of the task’s unpleasantness, here’s an account written by a career “collar starcher” from the late 19th century, and, below, a description of the starching step from 1908 (remember, household laundry was a two-day process):

“To apply starch. – Strain the hot starch through a piece of cheese cloth and use while it is still warm.  Select first the articles that require the most stiffness, as shirt bosoms, collars, and cuffs . . . .  The garments to be starched should be nearly dry.  Immerse them or such part of them as should be starched in the thick starch, and rub between the hands to work the starch thoroughly into their texture.  Remove the starch, squeeze out the excess, and rub once more with the hands to distribute the starch evenly through the material [or else it won’t iron well].  Dry the articles, sprinkle them, spread on a clean white cloth, and roll them up in bundles so that the dampness will be evenly distributed before ironing.”
– From Household Discoveries, An Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes and Processes, by Sidney Morse, 1908.

Laundry exhibit status: These collars did not make the exhibit, but there are several others on display.

Linen and cotton collars: anonymous donors.  Package of paper collars: donated by Gladys Poffenberger.

More collars! From the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog

More collars! From the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog

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?

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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.”

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Use wear on the corners; the case “traveled far and often,” but at some cost to its structure.

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.

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Mailing label – “Extra cards may be purchased from U.S. Travelwear Corp, Manchester, NH.”

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A typed and taped-in label on the underside of the lid: “Property of Miss Pat Herman, 4514 Yuma St NW, Washington 16 D.C.”

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.)

This month’s laundry-related post is a tad tangential.  Why?  Sunday, September 8th, is our annual “Happy Birthday Montgomery County!” celebration, and to coordinate (tangentially) with our laundry exhibit we’ve invited a jug band to the party.  Members of the Sunshine Skiffle Band will play a set at 3:15, and they’ve promised us a washboard.

Jug band musicians turn everyday household items into musical instruments.  Granted, many of those items are no longer quite so “everyday,” but a traditionally-minded band still relies on the washboards, washtubs, vinegar jugs, and other tools that could be found in many 19th century American homes.  I won’t attempt to parse the long history of jug band music, which began in the American south and was pioneered by African American musicians, both amateur and professional (here’s a nice overview, or check out this history, including audio, of the Memphis Jug Band).  Instead, let’s look at some of the artifacts themselves.

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The washboard.  Our early 20th century example is made of wood, with galvanized tin ribs, measuring two feet tall. Any labels or markings have long since washed away through use.  It was donated by John W. Magruder (1902-1979), who grew up on a farm in Gaithersburg, and served as the Montgomery County Agricultural Extension Agent from 1948 until 1963; unfortunately, we don’t know if this washboard’s history is related to his home or work life.
Original use: Before the agitator washing machine, the laundress had to do the agitating herself in order to work the soap through the cloth; a common method was rubbing fabric vigorously against the ridges of a washboard.  (This method is hard on both fabric and hands.).
To play: A percussion instrument. Washboard players achieve a nice rhythmic sound by rubbing their hands, or another tool, up and down the ribs.  Different materials (washboards can be made of metal, glass, or plastic) produce different sounds.  This instrument is popular in Zydeco bands as well as jug bands.

 

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The washtub.  This circa 1910 tub is made of galvanized tin, and stands 11 inches tall.  The manufacturer’s paper label is water damaged – like the washboard above, it’s a well-used piece – and now illegible.  The tub was donated by Katherine Poole, and was likely used at Poole family homes in Washington, DC or Rockville.
Original use: Laundry day required multiple tubs, for soaking, rinsing, and bluing clothes and linens.  A metal tub like this one was an improvement over the old wooden tubs, which didn’t last very long, and could give an unwary laundress splinters.  Even better were tubs that were built with legs, reducing strain on the back.
To play: With a few additions, a tub becomes the string section of a jug band.  You need an upside down metal tub, an upright broomstick, and a taut wire stretched between them that can be plucked like a guitar string.  Moving the broomstick varies the tension on the wire, and thus the note achieved.

 

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The jug.  A mid-late 19th century stoneware jug, with no maker’s marks or other identifications, 11 inches tall.  Donated by Charles T. Jacobs, it was likely used by one the many local branches of the Waters and Jacobs families.
Original use: Stoneware jugs of various sizes and shapes were indispensable in the 19th century kitchen.  Usually locally made, and reused over and over again, jugs held water, vinegar, cider, or any other frequently used liquid.
To play: The jug is essentially the brass section, and is played like a trumpet or tuba – you blow across the top, using changes in the position of lips and mouth to affect the pitch and tone of the resulting notes.  (I say that like I can do it; I cannot.)  There’s no jug band without a jug… because then it’s called a skiffle band instead.

All three of these pieces can be seen (but not played, sorry) in the Beall-Dawson House – the washboard and tub as part of the laundry exhibit, and the jug (along with some friends) in the “Old Kitchen.”  Other common jug or skiffle band instruments can be found in our collections, and probably yours as well: spoons, combs, buckets, bottles… Try your own internet search for “how to make jug band instruments” for instructions ranging from toddler- to adult-appropriate, then take a look around your house with new, instrument-seeking eyes! (But don’t break anything.)

Oh, and be sure to visit us this Sunday from 2-5 at “Happy Birthday Montgomery County!”  As always, the party is free.  In addition to the fabulous music, we’ll have children’s activities and crafts; a presentation on the Monocacy Cemetery at 2:15; birthday cake at 4:30; and, throughout the event, a chance to tour our museums, check out our exhibits, talk to reenactors, and learn about local historical and cultural organizations.   A good time will be had by all.

It is often the case that, as soon as you start to research a topic, you see it everywhere.  This is particularly true for me when it comes to exhibits, and it can last for years; I still find myself noticing past themes (pets, pianos, fences. . .) in our photograph collections.  While working on our current exhibit, I realized how ubiquitous laundry is: clotheslines in the background of snapshots; advertisements for detergents in magazines; references to wash day in letters, memoirs, novels. . . . Once you’re on the alert, laundry is everywhere.

Laundry can even be found on the back of this postcard.  Its primary use in the library is as an historic image, capturing “Main Street, Poolesville, Md.,” but the message on the back is another way to look at life in Poolesville circa 1910.

059009a-2059009a-3Addressed to Mrs. J.S. Poole, 1520 R St NW, Washington D.C.  Postmarked Beallsville, year not visible. Message: “Package received – many thanks.  Hope the buttons will soon come.  I had a pr. of gloves cleaned & sent to 1520 R., please keep them for me.  Hope to see you next Thursday  [kindly] N.D.P.   Please hurry buttons.”

The recipient of the postcard was Annie Evelyn Poole, who has shown up on “A Fine Collection” several times this summer; she and her daughters had a summer home near Rockville, but wintered in an apartment on R Street in D.C.  The sender, N.D.P., is not positively identified, and it’s possible that this card came from Mrs. Poole’s bachelor brother-in-law Nathan Dickerson Poole (1843-1912); but I suspect it was sent by Nannie Dickerson Poole (1869-1928), Mrs. Poole’s niece by marriage.  Nannie D. Poole was born and raised in Poolesville; she lived with her younger brother, farmer William Wallace Poole, Jr., and his family for many years before marrying widower Harvey White (1869-1950) in 1922.  We have no photos of Miss Poole/Mrs. White in our own collections, but three images can be seen online thanks to the Monocacy Cemetery project – take a look here – she is stylishly dressed, and if she took as much care of her wardrobe as the images suggest, she might well have needed those buttons in a polite hurry.

Whether the Poolesville-area sender was Nathan or Nannie, he or she was willing and able to have accessories purchased (buttons, and whatever was in the other package) and maintained (gloves) in Washington D.C., some 30 miles away.  (Convenient relatives in the city probably helped; I wish I knew whether Mrs. Poole was expected to make the button delivery in person.)

In this era, both men and women wore gloves much of the time; thus, gloves were often subject to both staining and the critical eyes of friends and neighbors.  They also weren’t necessarily cheap, and must be treated with care. (Think of Jo and Meg March, left with only one pair of spoilt gloves to share, early in Little Women.)  Household advice guides from the 19th and early-mid 20th century provided a variety of hints on cleaning leather, silk, and cotton gloves, such as. . .

–“Wash-leather gloves should be washed in clean suds, scarcely warm. . . . Cream of tartar, rubbed upon soiled white kid gloves, cleanses them very much.”  Lydia Child, The American Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to Those Who are Not Ashamed of Economy, 1833

–“Clean kid gloves with gasoline, rubbing till dry.” Mrs. C.H. Merrill, ed., Cookery Craft, As Practiced in 1894 by the Women of the South Church, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 1894

–Put your gloves on your hands on and “wash them in gasoline in the same fashion as the hands are washed in water.” Sidney Morse, Household Discoveries, An Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes and Processes, 1908

Gloves also must be carefully dried, to maintain their shape.  There were tools to make this easier, like this pair of plastic “Handiform Glove Dryers,” circa 1960.  As the instruction sheet notes, “When you have dried your gloves on Handiform’s Glove Dryers, you have treated them as the manufacturer did when they were made.  You have dried your gloves without stretching, smoothed the seams, restored their shape, finishing them like new.”

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With all these complications, it’s no surprise that many people chose to send out their gloves, cuffs, collars, and other finicky accessories to be professionally cleaned by someone else.  In 1910 there were many hand laundries, including several owned and operated by Chinese gentlemen, to choose from in Montgomery County and D.C.; unfortunately, the specific cleaner is not identified here, so we don’t know which business was patronized by this Poolesville resident.  Nonetheless, N.D.P.’s postcard message – the kind of thing we might send over email or text today – serves as a concrete, if brief, reminder that all my abstract “people used to do laundry in this manner” research applied to specific individuals, once upon a time.

Postcard donated by the Poole family; glove dryers donated by Millicent Gay.

Laundry exhibit status: Neither the postcard nor the pink glove dryers made it into the exhibit, but the display does include a pair of metal glove-drying frames (1930s), as well as a number of 19th and 20th century gloves in various states of cleanliness.

It’s time for this month’s Laundry Spotlight (here’s why).  Though most of the world of pre-modern laundry pertains to women, this one’s for the men: A Heatless Trouser Press.

Folded...

Folded…

unfolded

…unfolded

Leahey’s Heatless Trouser Press came to us from the estate of Rose K. Dawson of Rockville, and was likely used by one or more members of her family.  It’s an extremely simple device, made mostly of sturdy cardboard (this example is missing its four steel clamps), and is nice and compact; when folded flat, it measures 16″ by 14″. It’s also one of those artifacts that would be somewhat mysterious to modern eyes, were it not for the convenient label prominently featured on the front:

20130703112115_00001Leahey’s Heatless Trouser Press – Patented October 6th, 1914 – Any Infringement Will Be Severely Prosecuted.  While You Sleep – While You Travel. “Always Creased.”  Directions: Open press, fold trousers evenly, lay out smoothly on center board, one leg on top of the other, (enclose plain trousers legs entirely; cuffs extend, as illustrated) dampen edges of trousers liberally; close lower flap with clamps; stretch legs and close upper flap with clamps. Press now doing its work.

The natty gentleman in the center is certainly an advertisement for the press’s good work, and the 1914 patent gives further instruction on how to correctly use it – but there’s not much here about why you should use one of these instead of a traditional iron.  This advertisement (below – click to view in larger format) from the June 1917 issue of “System” elaborates, “No more hot tailor’s irons can press my trousers.  That scorching heat shrivels the life right out of the cloth, while the damp steam rots the fabric.”  Even better, using the press “restores baggy knees, smooths away wrinkles and gives your trousers a knife-like crease from belt to boot,” and helps you to achieve that important “prosperous look.”  “Be the best-groomed man in your set.  You will be surprised at the effect on others and on yourself. The shoddy man gets the shoddy job.”  And it only cost a dollar, payable at one cent a month!  Who wouldn’t want one of these?
20130703111134_00001(Lest you think the gigantic iron threatening our hero’s extra pair of trousers is an exaggeration, here’s a similar item from our collection, donated by Ruth Wilcox: a ten-inch long tailor’s goose or iron, weighing in at fourteen pounds.)

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When researching 19th and early 20th century laundry methods for our exhibit, I was struck by two points that were heavily emphasized in advice manuals, instruction books, and advertisements: First, that doing the laundry was a dreadful task to be avoided at all costs; and second, that many laundry techniques were very hard on clothing, with washboards, caustic soaps, and irons the primary culprits.  The Heatless Trouser Press, if it worked as well as the copy claimed, did away with both the chore and the costly damage to the fabric.

Interestingly, this is one of the few laundry-related products I’ve encountered that was aimed at men as both customers and users.  Some ads went the “buy this product to make your wife/maid/laundress happy!” route, but almost every part of the days-long laundry process was the province of women.  However, the implication here is that the man himself (or his valet) has sole charge of the pressing of the trousers; indeed, the 1917 ad goes so far as to proclaim the Heatless Trouser Press “the greatest money-saving, time-saving and labor-saving invention for men since the advent of the safety razor.”

Laundry exhibit status: Neither of these pieces (the Press or the tailor’s goose) are in the display, but there are many, many other types of irons to admire.