The Life of a Laundress: Steam Laundry Work in 1908

(Copyright (c) 2015 Cynthia Shenette) One of my tasks at my library job is to put away closed stack material.  I love it, because I often find interesting stuff that I would never come across otherwise.  Last week I was putting away some closed stack material and came across a volume of the journal Charities, published by The Charity Organization Society, 105 East 22nd St., New York, NY.  Charities was published from 1897-1952 with several name changes over the course of its publication. 

The volume that I looked at had sections on a number of different topics I think might be of interest to genealogists and family historians.  Topics included articles on the following: civic improvement; child labor; communications and conferences; "defectives" and dependents; delinquents; housing; immigration; industrial education; juvenile courts and probation; milk; organized charity; play, playgrounds, and parks; saloons and prohibition; schools; schools of philanthropy; settlements; social forces; tuberculosis; and unemployment. 

While there were a number of articles that I found interesting one in particular caught my eye. "Pittsburgh's Steam Laundry Workers" by Elizabeth Beardsley Butler.  My grandfather's sister, Lena (Chenette / Shenette) Potvin (1882-1961) spent time working in a steam laundry in Worcester, MA from 1909 to 1913.  While the article I read in Charities was specific to Pittsburgh, I'm sure many things about the Pittsburgh article also applied to the way steam laundries were run outside of Pittsburgh as well.

"The modern steam laundry is the latest instance of the routing of a home industry."

Laundry was, as it still is, a constant of everyday life.  Commercial laundries processed laundry from hotels and factories, from railroads and from private homes, with the majority of laundry workers being women. Most laundry workers were young and unskilled and the ones who flourished in the laundry business, if one could possibly flourish in such an environment, had a knack for speed within their assigned task.

Steam laundries had several departments--checking and sorting, washing, mangling, starching, and ironing.  The working conditions varied from department to department, and differences in mental and physical demands called for differences in personnel.

Checkers received a batch of linens and marked each article with the owner's name and sorted into baskets items to be washed separately--colored goods, flat work, shirts, collars, fancy articles, etc. Checkers were the lucky ones in a commercial steam laundry environment.  The job was easier, and they were able to dress better because they didn't need to slave over hot, steamy laundry all day.  A checker was considered to be an "aristocrat" among laundry workers.

"At the preliminary processes of washing, mangling, and starching, place is found for the beginners and the girls of the lowest grade."

The washroom was generally the men's part of the laundry.  Strong men were needed to operate the washing machines which were huge cylinders full of hot water and steaming clothes, though some women were used in the washing room for pieces better done by hand, such as flannel.  Laundry was put in extractors which twisted the clothes and flung the water out of the wet material by centrifugal force, then garments were moved into trucks and wheeled to metal wringers.

Before laundry could be fed into the mangle "shakers-out" untwisted and unknotted the laundry to be fed into the mangle.  Shakers-out tended to be new female workers, young girls, and older women not physically capable of other jobs.  Once the laundry was shaken out, feeders stood at one end of the mangle and pushed the flat goods over the metal apron until the rolls caught them.  Steam heat heated the metal mangle rolls.  

Feeders had the most dangerous job.  By 1908 the mangle had a "guard," small rolls that were hot at the beginning of the mangle to catch the feeder's attention before the feeder's hand was caught in the mangle.  In the past hands and arms were caught, crushed, and maimed in the mangle. Sometimes several girls were needed to feed larger pieces of cloth into the mangle.  Mangle girls were the youngest as the work required the least amount of training.  As a result the pay rates for mangle girls were the lowest.

In the starching room trays of boiling starch were ready for collars, cuffs, and anything else that needed to be starched.  There were three groups of machines--a collar starcher, a shirt bosom starcher, and a band starcher.  The collar girl fed collars or cuffs into the machine that carried the linen by a conyeyor to make contact with rolls immersed in hot starch.  Wipers wiped in starch with their hands.  The starch room machines were largely automatic, with little skill or experience needed.

"No American can stand this.  We have to use Hungarians or other foreigners."

In the ironing room there were long rows of machines.  Each girl was a specialist at her own machine.  She did not iron a whole article, instead she ironed a sleeve or a cuff or a yoke, or perhaps one side of a collar.  There were two different kinds of machines--steam presses and rolls.  A "body ironer" was so difficult one man said he would not hire a girl for the body ironer unless she weighed 180lbs because of the strength and size needed to operate the machine.  With the cuff press machine the whole body of the girl shook with the force she needed to use the machine.  Cuff pressers ironed at the rate of three cuffs a minute which meant twelve of the violent motions each minute for a total of 7,200 treadle pressures a day.  Fancy ironer's worked almost exclusively in women's wear.

"The work's too hard, and you simply can't stand the heat."

Most workers didn't last in a commercial laundry too long.  The emphasis was on speed.  Washroom floors were wet.  Gutters ran under the washing machines to carry off waste, but water still could stand in pools where the floor had sunk in places. There were clouds of steam, inadequate ventilation, and the heat was intolerable, with steam rising from the boilers ten hours a day.  Windows were small, ceilings were low, and fans were few.  In Pittsburgh women made a dollar a day for a ten hour work day.  Laundry owners preferred hiring women, because they could hire two women for the same money they would spend on one man.  Laundry workers had a tendency to get tuberculosis.  All in all, workers generally didn't last long in the industry, four years on average though many didn't make it to two.

So tonight when you go home and decide to toss a load of laundry in before bed, don't complain about having to haul your laundry up and down from the basement or wherever your washer and dryer are located.  Think about how easy you have it compared to your ancestors.  Thankfully, for my dad's Aunt Lena she didn't work in the laundry business all that long.  Eventually, Lena married Joseph Potvin and moved to St. Albans, VT where she operated a beauty shop.  While it probably wasn't exactly picnic cutting ladies' hair and giving perms all day every day, I bet it was still a lot easier than her time working as a "laundress."

Source: Butler, Elizabeth Beardsly. "Pittsburgh's Steam Laundry Workers,"  Charities, 20 (1908): 549-63.

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