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.),