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Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940

Author(s):Mohun, Arwen
Mohu, Arwen

Published by EH.Net (November 2000)

Arwen Mohun. Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United

States and Great Britain, 1880-1940. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins

University Press, 1999. x + 348 pp. ISBN 0-8018-6002-4 (cloth, $19.95).

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Jeffrey M. Hornstein, PhD candidate in

the Department of History, University of Maryland.

A large part of the cultural history of the American twentieth century

revolves around domestic appliances. If this seems a bit overstated, recall

the 1959 “kitchen debate” between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S.

Vice President Richard Nixon in which much of the discussion revolved around

which adversary in the Cold War was better able to “liberate” its women from

domestic tasks through appliances. Particular mention was made of the washing

machine, by 1959 a feature in the majority of American homes, but a very small

minority of Soviet homes. As Elaine Tyler May and others have argued, the

domestic scene was a crucial site of Cold War cultural contestation, fought

largely along gender and class lines. The washing machine was an icon of

postwar American prosperity. It became axiomatic that middle class Americans

did their own laundry in the privacy of their own(ed) homes. Public

laundromats existed either for those not yet able to become home owners with a

pair of spanking new Kenmore machines in their basement, or those marginal few

in the so-called underclass who would never really fit in anyway.

Arwen Mohun’s Steam Laundries helps us to understand why the leaders of two

nuclear superpowers found themselves arguing about washing machines. Though

it is much, much more than that, at one level Mohun’s book is part of the

“path not taken” genre in the history of technology. She tells a

transatlantic tale of the failed attempt to industrialize women’s most dreaded

chore, laundry, and the gender and class troubles attendant to that attempt.

Had Mohun’s laundrymen succeeded in preempting the spread of individual

washing machines by convincing Anglo-American women to eschew performing this

onerous task themselves, the Nixon-Khruschev debate would have been very

different, and one wonders what possibilities for discussion might have opened

up. Alas, we shall never know.

But Mohun’s main project is trying to explain how and why the laundrymen

failed, and in the course of telling this story, Mohun provides a compelling,

rich, multi-layered history of modern America and Britain. In a style both

scholarly and eminently readable, she tells a tale that captures several large

histories in a deceptively “little” topic, the rise and fall of the steam

laundry industry from about 1880 through 1950. In 280 pages, the reader is

taken on a journey through not only the history of the failed attempt by some

industrialists in the United States and Britain to remove one of the most

onerous of the traditional “women’s jobs” from the home, but through several

other stories as well. We learn about the technology of laundering, the

history of women’s trade unionism in both the US and Britain, the history of

progressivism in all its glorious ambiguity, and the masculine world of the

trade association. The latter Mohun suggestively, but somewhat cursorily,

analyzes through the lens of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community.” (An

extended analysis of the laundrymen’s social and cultural milieu is found in

her 1997 article in Technology and Culture, “Laundrymen Construct Their

World.” This reader wondered why it was left out of the book.).

By way of contextualizing the “laundry problem,” Steam Laundries begins

with a very useful discussion of the history of cleanliness. In the nineteenth

century, middle class Americans and Britons became “voracious consumers of

cleanliness” (32) as they came to associate foul odors and dirty clothes with

disease and moral laxity. In fact, Mohun suggests that cleanliness was a key

marker of middle class identity in this period of increasing urbanization and

its attendant filth. Middle class people became concerned not only with

their own cleanliness, with distinguishing themselves from the “unwashed

masses” – the clean, white, starched, and ironed shirt became a central symbol

of middle class self-presentation – but also with the laundering process

itself. Cleanliness was “gradually gendered.” Women came to be seen as “the

cleaner sex, better able to judge the clean from the unclean” and “to oversee

the consumption of cleanliness” (33). Thus were the cultural foundations laid

for both the gendered division of labor within the industrial laundry, and the

extremely durable link between laundry and domesticity.

This allows Mohun to argue that the failure of the “laundry industry” to

rescue women from the dreaded domestic chore has at least as much to do with

gender and class as it does with technology. It is a story full of irony.

The technologies developed and promoted by industrial laundrymen ultimately

were privatized, so to speak, and configured into home-sized packages, thus

undermining the industry. At the same time, the laundrymen failed to figure

industrial laundries as more hygienic and efficient than home laundering.

Mohun suggests that technology, politics, and economics conspired to make

privatized laundering a nearly irresistible option: cheaper machines,

widespread electrification and water and sewage systems, and expanded consumer

credit led to a boom in machine purchases beginning in the 1920s. Ironically,

Mohun notes, the Depression gave washing machines an advantage over commercial

laundries. Price wars among manufacturers, installment plans with little or

no down payment, and the rational consumer strategy of investing in durable

goods all played a role in sealing the fate of the industrial laundry. At the

same time, culture played a crucial role. Not surprisingly, racism factored

into the equation, as washing machine and soap manufacturers associated

commercial laundries – which employed significant numbers of African American

women – with miscegenation, stirring fears of “other people’s dirt and the

dirt of workers” (259). Advertisers relentlessly sold the idea that the

washing machine was a crucial status symbol and used “emotional selling” to

associate the machine with marital bliss and the health of children. Gender

and ethnicity intertwined, as one machine dealer in an immigrant community put

up a window display suggesting that “real American men spared their wives the

tortures of washday” with appliances (264).

Yet, there is a counterfactual question that haunts the book. Why would one

expect industrial laundries to have succeeded in either Britain or the United

States? (Not surprisingly, industrial laundries were quite prevalent in

Khruschev’s USSR.) A master theme in twentieth century American life has

surely been the increasing privatization of things through technology. One

can chart a variety of shifts from the social to the private: children’s

leisure from playground to backyard; adult leisure from the social experience

of the cinema to the private experience of television and video;

transportation from the streetcar to the automobile. Why would laundry buck

this trend? Mohun suggests that an important factor in explaining the decline

was also the standardization of the washing machine, a “quintessential

twentieth-century technology,” as opposed to the localism of the commercial

laundry. Ultimately, then, mass production and mass culture combined forces

to produce a result that might seem paradoxical – reinforcing privatization.

Minor criticism notwithstanding, Steam Laundries is a fabulous book,

deserving of a wide audience among social historians, business and economic

historians, historians of technology, and gender historians, suitable for use

in upper-division undergraduate courses and graduate seminars. The Johns

Hopkins University Press has done its usual fine job of editing, and the final

product is visually appealing, loaded with illustrations, and well organized.

One only hopes it comes out in a more affordable paper edition soon.

Jeffrey Hornstein’s main research interests are the relationship betweeen

subjectivity/identity and political economy in 20th century USA. His latest

publication is “The Rise of the Realtor: Professionalism, Gender, and

Middle-Class Identity,” in Middling Sorts: An Exploration in the History of

the American Middle Class, Burton Bledstein and Robert Johnston (eds.),

Routledge, 2000.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII