Washington’s laundries — big and small — helped everyone from police to presidents


Beulah Hall, left, the owner of Louise Hand Laundry, with an employee. The business closed in 1977. (Matthew Lewis/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 17

As Russ Adams was going through some of his late father’s possessions — the man seldom threw anything out — he came across a 1931 letter to his dad from the Palace Laundry, headquartered then at Ninth and H streets NW. “Dear Sir,” began Palace manager John C. Chevalier. “We cheerfully enclose our check #14741 to the amount of $.75 in settlement of your claim of October 6.

“We hope that this is satisfactory, and that we may look forward to a continuation of our pleasant business relations.”

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

What could have prompted such a princely amount? Russ figures the laundry had mangled one of his father’s shirts. Eighty years ago, you could replace a shirt for less than a buck.

After last week’s column on steam laundries in Washington, Answer Man felt like letting the subject soak a little longer. He finds these once-common, and now largely vanished, businesses fascinating.

The motto of Palace Laundry was “Long live linen.” Palace is remembered today as the business that gave George Preston Marshall the money to purchase a professional football team and bring it down from Boston.

(Somewhat unrelated to laundries is an article Answer Man found about a rule Marshall put in place in the summer of 1940: He forbade employees from discussing the situation in Europe. Those who did were subject to dismissal. “It’s pretty hard to pay attention to your business when talking of War,” he told a reporter from the Evening Star. “Besides, that is the business of governments.” Answer Man presumes his tune changed on Dec. 7, 1941.)

Jim Jenkins of Arlington has a wall thermometer advertising Tolman, a laundry that used to be on Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights. The thermometer is topped by an illustration of a man in white tie and the legend: “Don’t wear a Bulger. All shirts pressed by steam.”

What, you may be wondering, is a Bulger? A Tolman ad from 1903 explains: “Don’t wear a Bulger. Shirt bosoms that are pressed instead of ironed fit perfectly. The buttonholes match, and the bosoms set flat, instead of bulging. Send us a dress shirt with your next bundle.”

A century ago, you could basically assemble a man’s shirt from different parts. There were detachable collars, cuffs and shirt fronts, or bosoms. This was to reduce laboring over laundry. Why change your shirt every day when it was just your collar and cuffs that got dirty? And, of course, no one likes a wrinkly bosom.

Laundries were critical crime-fighting tools, too. News stories about murders, missing persons and unclaimed bodies often included references to laundry marks, the unique codes laundries inked on the fabric to keep track of customers’ clothes. In 1942, the Evening Star reported that a Nassau County, N.Y., policeman had spent a week in the District helping local officers assemble a list of D.C. laundry marks, “part of a steadily growing index which eventually may become as important as fingerprinting in crime detection.”

While steam laundries such as Palace and Tolman represented the factory-floor side of things, hand laundries represented the artisanal side. As the name suggests, hand laundries washed garments by hand and thus were less likely to mess up your clothes. In a 1924 ad, Louise Hand Laundry noted that it specialized in “ladies’ lingerie, georgette, crepes, silks and all fine linens — men’s silk, flannel and dress shirts.”

Louise Hand Laundry was at 1405 12th St. NW, near Logan Circle. It opened in 1912. In a 1967 Washington Post article, owner Beulah Hall, who bought the laundry from founder Margaret Nicodemus in 1943, explained, “There’s no slam bang stuff in here.” She meant there was no machinery more complicated than a woman’s hands, no treatment rougher than the application of a soapy brush.

Delicate items were put inside a glass jar along with soapy water, then shaken. Starch for men’s shirts was not sprayed out of a can but made by hand: cooked for 25 minutes until the paste was the proper consistency and then rubbed into the fabric.

Such an approach brought many loyal customers. The Smithsonian sent John Quincy Adams’s christening gown to Louise Hand Laundry. Mount Vernon sent one of George Washington’s bedspreads. A stack of John F. Kennedy’s shirts was awaiting pickup when the president was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.

The Louise laundry was the last of its kind when it closed in 1977. Hall had washed her last shirt. She was 87.

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

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