Jan and I have been discussing dry cleaning. Neither of us care for it much. While most of our objections are based on environmental and health concerns, it seems that many consumers have also become wary of dry cleaning often (rightly) suspecting that manufacturers who rely on it are avoiding the detailed requirements of comprehensive product testing. In my opinion -the latter is true- but the imposition of the requirement of dry cleaning is further up the ladder than manufacturers due to fabric producers who use dry clean only as an escape hatch to avoid testing their own textiles before they sell them. Naturally, it becomes incumbent upon manufacturers to apply pressure on textile producers to produce quality goods that can be laundered. Anyway, as I said, Jan and I have been talking about dry cleaning and she’s gathered some interesting tidbits on the topic which she’s graciously agreed to share here:
I was surprised at my inability to penetrate very deeply into the mysteries of this industry. One of my big stumbling blocks is a memory I have of a feature about dry cleaning that I heard on NPR back in 1978 or ’79 in which it was reported that the name “dry” cleaning originated with a family owned laundry business with the German surname of “Drye.” Because of anti-German sentiment during the World War (I thought II, but maybe I), they changed the name to “Dry” and it stuck and spread throughout the industry through the phenomenon linguists call “back formation.” I’ve spent hours searching the web to confirm this story without any success. I’ve thought about writing to NPR to request an archive search, but just haven’t done it out of a sense of hopelessness.
The one original thought I’ve had since I started to look into this is to wonder how chemical cleaning got started in the first place. I think I’ve found the answer in a book I first read a few years ago called Crinolines and Crimping Irons: Victorian Clothes, How They Were Cleaned and Cared For by Christina Walkley and Vanda Foster, published in 1978. This is a rather scholarly work by two Victoria and Albert conservationists who meticulously culled and cited 19th century sources (novels, letters, diaries, magazines, etc.) for information on how women cleaned and cared for their clothing and other items of dress in the later 19th century. I read this book with utter fascination and recommend it heartily to anyone interested in textiles and clothing construction and care.
It seems that people started to use solvents to clean their clothes when chemical dyes were first invented because they found these new and wondrous colors to be very unstable in water. They began to use all sorts of mixtures like “gall obtainable at the butcher’s shop” or “one pennyworth of sugar of lead” or “oil of vitriol or sulphuric acid” to wash their dresses (31). Different colored garments were treated with a long list of various remedies for preserving their colors and methods varied as well for different textiles. Great care was taken to keep clothing clean in the first place; body dirt wasn’t much of a problem because of the “huge quantities of underwear worn. A dress worn over a chemise, a camisole and several petticoats, was effectively protected from contact with the body. Vulnerable points such as neck and wrists were safeguarded by detachable collars, cuffs and under sleeves which were removed for frequent washing” (30). They include a long chapter on “washing day” for all these cotton and linen items. Stains and spots were treated with numerous recipes involving the “use of bleaches, solvents or acids of some sort. Many were chemicals which are now considered too dangerous for public use, although easily obtained throughout the nineteenth century” (149). I think this sort of practice easily led to the general acceptance of solvents for cleaning clothes and since the task was laborious, nasty and dangerous, the rise of commercial establishments that would perform this work was greeted with approval and relief.
Throughout the last century, this type of chemical cleaning continued to expand, particularly with the development of synthetic fibers, and to evolve, developing new chemicals that weren’t flammable, such as perc, for instance. Chemical cleaning and the garment industry have become increasingly symbiotic to the point that the one is unthinkable without the other to the detriment, I think, of much of the clothing currently manufactured.