For anyone in the early days of the West, clean clothes were almost a luxury! We've all seen the old pictures of women using scrub boards or banging clothes on rocks over a stream, and certainly that was the way pioneer women laundered their clothes before the first wringer machines were invented.
Because cleanliness was difficult to maintain on the plains, on the trail or in mining camps, or around the farm or ranch, it's easy to understand why women wore large aprons, hoping to preserve some semblance of respectability, ie: cleanliness. It also explains why Sunday clothes were reserved just for Sunday go-to-meetings or other special occasions. Even wedding dresses were often altered or dyed and used again. "Better" dresses or suits were maintained by heavy brushing and being hung out in the sunshine to reduce odors. For obvious reasons they were not cleaned often.
Within the pages of the historic material I've begun to collect, it was fascinating to read about San Francisco's burgeoning laundry market, an economic endeavor that attracted many Chinese immigrants; clearly it was one venture where they were not as persecuted by Caucasians and even achieved financial success. Of course, many left after the implementation of the Exclusion Act, although throughout the gold fields there were a number of successful Chinese stores, pack trains, mining companies, and the like.
Before the rush to the gold hills of California, laundry was done by Spanish-American or Indian women who worked along the edge of a small fresh-water lake
located about two miles west of San Francisco (Yerba Buena), at a place also known as "Washerwoman's Lagoon." As noted in one source, "the water was soft, and the shore was covered with thorny scrub brush which answered admirably for drying." But as the new city grew, so did its need for laundry services. Many resisted paying the going rate of $8 per dozen shirts charged by French laundries, and some began sending their laundry off to China or Honolulu! Amazing to realize that laundry was shipped to these exotic locations, but ships arriving from China or the Sandwich Islands brought back hundreds of bundles of clean clothes.
Then things began to change: even the Daily Alta California, San Francisco's leading newspaper, reported in 1850: "Much excitement was caused in the city last week by the reduction of washing prices from eight dollars to five dollars a dozen. There is now no excuse for citizens to wear soiled or colored shirts. The effect of the reduction is already manifest -- tobacco-juice bespattered bosoms are no longer the fashion."
Reportedly, it was an immigrant named Wah Lee who displayed the first laundry sign in San Francisco, announcing, "Wash'ng and Iron'ng" over the door of his business on Washington Street. By 1876, there were approximately 300 Chinese laundries in the city, each one employing at least 5 men. The laundries were not confined to the area known as Chinatown, but were located throughout the city.
As a result of the number of immigrants entering the profession, the price for clean shirts dropped to $2 a dozen and business boomed. Even at Wah Lee's establishment, there were more than twenty washermen employed, and they cleaned clothes for individuals from as far away as Monterey or Sacramento. Eventually, the less numerous French laundries, as well as most of the Native American or Spanish-American washerwomen lost their hold on the flourishing laundry business in San Francisco.
It became a familiar sight to see a Chinese launderer with a pole across his shoulders from which hung two baskets, one on each end. Clean clothes were stacked in each basket and covered over with a cloth to keep them clean. Eventually San Francisco passed a law prohibiting these Chinese couriers from carrying their baskets in the streets. A few launderers who became much more prominent chose to drive small, black, covered buggies (or "vans"), the tops of which were covered with tin "to ward off the rocks thrown by ruffians."
Even though this was not the era of unions, within a short period of time, a protective Chinese society was established. It became a powerful organization that regulated the establishment of wash houses in San Francisco, even regulating how many "doors" must separate them; still, small stations and wash houses continue to spread through the city. This Chinese society -- or company, as it was called -- also settled disputes, collected dues, and managed the washermen's activities. Admission to the company cost an individual $10 and all workers had to attend meetings or pay a fine. Unfortunately, this society ran the washermen with an iron fist, even employing secret thugs to help keep the peace.
The Chinese laundry of old has now faded into history, seen only in westerns or old films. It's hard to contemplate their role in the lives of early San Francisco residents, but it was an important role in actuality. Interestingly enough, it was a simple "Chinese laundry mark" that led to the capture, arrest and conviction of Charles Boles, aka Black Bart; it was found on the handkerchief he dropped after his 29th holdup of a Wells Fargo stage coach in Copperopolis, California. So even such a mundane detail as a laundry mark became a significant historical detail!
Gail L. Jenner is the author of two historical novels, including BLACK BART: THE POET BANDIT, the story of California's most successful stage bandit who used a plugged shotgun, only targeted Wells Fargo stage coaches, and left poetry at the site of two of his 28 holdups. The enigmatic outlaw was well-liked and was eventually captured by James Hume, the Wells Fargo detective. He served 4 1/2 years in San Quentin then disappeared from history.
For more about Gail, visit: www.gailjenner.com or http://prairierosepublications.yolasite.com/gail-l-jenner.php