A woman washes her clothes at a Laundromat in Cambridge, Massachusetts. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A trip to Manila made me wonder about the history of washing and drying in America, and whether the automated models are doing more harm than good.

In October 2015, I was in the Philippines, on a bus heading up the North Luzon Expressway out of Manila and into the mountains. I had traveled from San Francisco to visit my friend Imman, and we were escaping the relentless heat. Out the window, tropical palm trees, rice fields, and rural villages rolled by. We were talking about domestic labor when the topic of laundry came up.

He asked, “How do Americans have time to do laundry?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “We just…do it?”

A seemingly small cultural difference began to unravel into something bigger about technology and urban planning.

When I was a kid growing up in Tennessee, my mom did our family’s laundry at home, in our own washer and dryer. In college, I used the coin-operated Speed Queen machines in the dormitory basement. Doing my laundry helped me feel like an adult in an otherwise infantilizing university environment. Since then, I’ve had a washer and dryer right in my apartment. For our household of two, laundry takes just a few minutes of active time each week. But Imman’s question got me wondering how America got here, and whether I’m doing my laundry in the most efficient and environmentally conscious way.

The history of laundry in America

In the U.S., laundry didn’t become a weekly chore until the 19th century. Before then, clothes were often made of rugged material like wool, leather, or felt, and were hard to wash. Dirty shirt? Shake it off!

With industrialization came the manufacture of cotton cloth. People started owning more clothing, and there was a movement toward keeping ourselves clean as a way to prevent disease. This meant more laundry. For a 19th-century housewife, “wash day” was laborious and time-consuming. You had to make detergent from lye and animal fat. You had to chop wood for the fire, or get your son or husband to do it. And you needed a lot of elbow grease to scrub the clothes. And that doesn’t even include the ironing. So, if you had extra cash, you would hire the help of a washerwoman — most likely a woman of color. A washerwoman in 1880 could make between $90 and $180 per month, in 2016 dollars.

Competition started heating up, though. Toward the mid-1800s, the first big wave of Chinese immigrants came to the United States. They started hand laundries serving urban neighborhoods. In 1880, two-thirds of San Francisco’s 320 laundries were Chinese-owned. By the late 1800s, any American city with a Chinese immigrant population had Chinese-owned laundries.

Industrialization continued to transform laundry. Commercial mechanized laundries sprung up as the power grid began to come online in the late 1800s. In the commercial laundries, washboards were replaced by hand-cranked washing machines, and later by electrically powered agitators. Originally catering to institutional clients and single men, these commercial laundries soon began marketing their lower-cost services directly to housewives.

The commercial and hand laundries peaked in the 1920s. Their decline was brought about in the following decades by the expansion of the power grid and the lowering costs of domestic washing machines. Maytag had already sold a million washing machines by 1927. By 1940, over 40 percent of American homes had a washing machine.

After World War II, laundry appliances became part of the notion of the ideal suburban home. Companies aggressively marketed them to housewives in women’s magazines (and, later, on television). Coin-operated Laundromats were a convenient marketing tool, introducing people to the new machines. Pretty soon, if you didn’t have a washing machine in your home, you weren’t keeping up with the Joneses.

A different approach in the Philippines

The history of laundry has taken a different course in the Philippines. There, laundry practices fall into two camps: urban and rural. In the rural provinces, laundry day happens each week by the river; it’s done by hand, and it’s a communal activity. Any technology that makes clean water easier to access can be a huge help. A covered area with a communal basin and fresh spring water makes laundry much easier. With the country’s 7,000 islands and numerous villages, building basic rural water infrastructure is an ongoing challenge.

In the cities, laundry has historically been done by hand, and home washing machines have only become commonplace in the past couple of decades. These days, many middle-class homes in Manila have washing machines and “house help” — young women from the provinces who live with Manilan families and handle domestic tasks. They’re often treated like an extension of the family, working for the same house for many years at a time. Apart from room and board, they make about $80 per month, often sending money back home to their families.

Laundered clothes dry on a line in Manila. (Wayne S. Grazio/Flickr)

Clothes dryers are rare in the Philippines. It’s always hot outside, and people opt to line dry. My friend Imman sees line-drying as superior, because the UV light contributes to killing germs.

In stark contrast, many American homeowners’ associations have banned the use of outdoor clotheslines entirely. The sight of drying clothes is sometimes viewed as an eyesore or a marker of poverty that lowers property values. San Francisco had a ban on clotheslines until 2015. Thanks to a recent Right to Dry movement, California and some other states, including Florida and Maine, have repealed these bans.

Laundromats in the Philippines are a mix of family-run, home-based businesses and laundry chains. Self-service, coin-operated Laundromats are virtually nonexistent, but there are some bigger, modern facilities doing larger-scale laundering. (Manila’s first commercial laundry began in 1946 when Dominador S. Asis, Sr. purchased a U.S. field laundry trailer from the departing American troops.)

In Manila, wash-and-fold services are much cheaper than they are in the U.S. The same amount of clothes that would cost me $35 for wash, fold, and delivery in San Francisco would be just $4.30 in Manila. While doing my own laundry works in my favor financially in San Francisco, for many people in Manila, the lower labor costs makes outsourcing a sensible choice.

What’s wrong with at-home laundry

The problem is that the American way of doing laundry is startlingly inefficient. We have favored personalized machines over industrial efficiency. Nearly every house on my block has a washing machine and a dryer, and they’re all idle 99 percent of the time. And when we do use them, we’re using a ton of water: at least 6 billion gallons a week. Per pound of laundry, large-scale industrial washers use less than half of the water required by the best high-efficiency home washing machines available. These industrial washers are commonly used for towels and sheets in the hospitality industry. If all our laundry went through these washers, the U.S. would save more than 3 billion gallons of water per week.

Unfortunately, there are big logistical barriers to capturing these efficiencies. Density is one problem. The most-dense U.S. metropolitan area is still only half as dense as metro Manila. In America, low-density suburban housing makes it difficult to centralize neighborhood resources. And while more efficient laundry may not be the lowest-hanging fruit with regard to climate change, I think it’s just one example among many in which low-density living is a barrier in tackling climate change. In a low-density suburb, nearly everything is less energy efficient: running errands, commuting, heating and cooling free-standing homes, lawn care, and so on.

At our home in San Francisco, far from the palm trees of the Philippines, our clothesline hangs from an olive tree in a quiet corner of the garden. Since my trip, I’ve started incorporating line drying into my routine on sunny days. I hope I will learn to make it an enjoyable ritual — a moment of contemplation in the warm sun.

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