A brief history of Washington’s steam laundries, keeping D.C.’s collars white


The Tolman Laundry on Wisconsin Avenue NW in 1973. (Doug Chevalier/The Washington Post)
Columnist

My daughter and I were at the National Capital Trolley Museum, where we saw a photograph of a Washington streetcar. The streetcar was standing in front of an industrial-looking building that had a smokestack with the name “Tolman” emblazoned on it. Given our region’s dearth of medium and heavy industry, was the photo actually shot elsewhere? And who was Tolman and what did they manufacture?

— Craig Messner, Silver Spring

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Tolman manufactured cleanliness. Clean clothes, to be exact, along with table linens, towels and any other fabrics that needed to be laundered.

The Tolman Steam Laundry was one of dozens of such establishments that competed for customers in Washington from the end of the 19th century into the middle of the 20th.

Ours has always been a predominantly white-collar city, don’t forget, and someone needed to keep those collars white.

Tolman was founded in 1879 and started out at the northeast corner of Sixth and C streets NW. In 1931, it moved to a $500,000 facility at Wisconsin Avenue and Jenifer Street NW, roughly where the Friendship Heights Metro station’s south entrance is today.

Steam laundries were industrial operations, different from what were known as hand laundries. They were called steam laundries not because they used steam to clean clothes, but because they originally used steam engines to power the machinery, thus the need for smokestacks.

A 1940 Washington Post article explained the process. Drivers working on commission would pick up bundles of soiled clothes at customers’ homes.

Once delivered to the laundry, the Post reporter wrote, “the bundles are weighed, tagged with a set of brass identification pins, and sent to the sorting room in 40 bundle lots. Skilled sorters break open each bundle, list each piece with a typewriter-like machine, mark them with indelible ink visible only in infra-red light, and separate them into three groups — white clothes, colored, and ‘fugitives’ whose colors run.”

The items then were loaded into massive washing machines that moved through several suds and rinse cycles. Then it was on to large, sieve-like cylinders for drying. Sheets were dried differently from socks, socks differently from shirts, shirts differently from towels. Each category of item was pressed differently, too.

Finally, The Post wrote, “By the ink markings, which stand out brightly in infra-red light, the original bundle is reassembled, packaged and sent, with the bill, to the delivery trucks.”

In 1931 — if you’d taken advantage of Tolman’s special end-of-week budget rate — all of this would have set you back 24 cents a pound for wearing apparel and 10 cents a pound for flat work. Sign Answer Man up!

Not so fast, says Arwen Mohun, a University of Delaware history professor and author of “Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Britain, 1880-1940.” The system sometimes broke down.

“A lot of people were very ambivalent about laundries,” she told Answer Man. “They had a tendency to lose things and also ruin your clothes. They used a lot of harsh chemicals and the machines sometimes tore apart items that were fragile.”

Still, reading about Washington’s steam laundries provokes a certain envy. Which one to choose? The Arcade Laundry and Sunshine Dry Cleaning & Dyeing Co. at Lamont Street and Georgia Avenue NW? The Palace Laundry, owned until 1947 by George Preston Marshall? (He sold the family business to concentrate on his football team, the Washington Redskins.) Or perhaps the Old Colony Laundry on Blair Road NW in Takoma, which boasted a wonderful slogan: “We wash everything but the baby.”

There were Chinese laundries, too, such as A. Wong at Second Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

The washing of clothes has undergone an interesting, boomerang-flight evolution, from drudge work done inside the house, to an efficient service made possible by the industrial revolution, to something that arrived back at home.

“The decline [of steam laundries] starts in the 1930s with the first viable electric washing machines,” said historian Arwen. “People’s reasoning is you get the labor for free, which you don’t really, but nobody thought women’s work was valuable.”

Advances in fabric made a difference, too. “No one in their right mind would iron a sheet now,” she said. “But that was sort of necessary in the age before things were permanent press. And a lot of the clothing we wear is knit, which doesn’t lend itself to commercial processes.”

In 1973, Tolman was sold to Manhattan Laundry. Manhattan merged with Aristo Laundry in 1976. A year later, Aristo threw in the towel, so to speak. Answer Man likes to think it was a clean towel.

Have a question about the Washington area? Send it to answerman@washpost.com.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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