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Monday, August 4, 2014

THE CHINESE LAUNDRY: A nearly forgotten piece of San Francisco History By Gail L. Jenner

As a writer, it's always interesting to pursue those often overlooked details involving, for example, the more intimate details of life. I recently found some fascinating history on the mundane subject of laundry -- or, more precisely, the infamous and stereotyped Chinese launderer. There were hundreds of Chinese laundries and washermen throughout the West; even on my husband's family's five-generational ranch, there was a hired Chinese launderer. He never married, but was counted in the family census and lived with the family for many years. I believe he passed away in the mid-1930s.

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.
I recognized how limited early women's wardrobes were when we moved into my husband's great grandparents' farmhouse. There were no clothes closets in any of the rooms (in fact, the last time the upstairs had been painted or updated was 1898!). There was a single "wardrobe" or armoire in each room, and only 3 or 4 hooks inside each of them. Certainly that's not much space for the kinds of clothes that now line our contemporary closets.

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

15 comments:

  1. Dang, Gail, I never would have thought I would be the least bit interested in laundry, especially not my own, but I have to say, this was a fascinating blog. I didn't really know until now how the Chinese immigrants became so well known for their laundry skills. I can't imagine how repugnant it must have been to live among people who didn't wash their clothes very often until I read the "tobacco stains on the bosoms" part. Ick!
    Great blog, Gail. I know Black Bart: The Poet Bandit, will be a tremendous success. I take it a laundry mark might get him into trouble.
    All good things to your corner...

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    1. Hi Sarah! Yes, I'm fascinated by this obscure history....and continue to do research. Funny what touches our imaginations as writers! And yes, poor Charles was "tagged" by the laundry mark found on his discarded kerchief....and it led to his arrest. Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. Dang laptop, it has a agenda of its own. Mess up the first post. Loved this post and love the details contained within. For me what makes the story and history come alive are the details. Thank you for adding to my knowledge. Doris

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    1. Hi Doris -- I'm always at odds with my laptop when it comes to publishing something sometimes!!! Thanks for your encouragement. I always am searching for those obscure details too.....

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  4. I do not know where my post went so I will try again. Gail, I agree with Sarah, such an interesting blog. As I read it a vision of a elderly Chinese man bent over a huge black vat filled with boiling water and men's dirty white shirts raced through my mind. I can not imagine how much work it took to do the simple things like washing clothes back in the day. All we do is pour in detergent and push a button and Walla!. Clean clothes. I can not imagine sitting on a bank and beating clothes with rocks to clean them or even draping them over scrub brush to dry. I like my dryer just fine. I guess that is what made those who came before us so tough. And for some who came to America, seeking their fortunes they were able to just by providing the basic necessities like clean clothes. Perhaps if I had lived back in those times I would have been a pie maker. Life's a lot happier when you've got pie.

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    1. So true, Barbara!!! I think we fool ourselves sometimes thinking that we have it so tough. I know my hubby's grandmother cooked for over 20 hired hands, day in and day out, over a hot wood stove, etc. I know I love the romance of bygone days, but I sorely appreciate what we have. I love going to the mountains -- we pack in with horses, etc. -- and I love roughing it, but I know I'll be going back home to WASH all those dirty clothes :-) I am a pie maker... maybe that's what keeps the guys on our ranch happy campers! It's nothing for me to cook 3, 4, or more pies at a time!

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  5. Grrrr! Lost my comment.

    I was saying this was an interesting read. I'm totally fascinated by the world history particularly China, Mongolia, Silk Road, Native Indians (South America, North America), Vikings, etc. I have a huge interest in anything Chinese - history, traditions, secret societies, etc. So, this piece of yours just hit the spot.

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    1. Great! Thanks, Liette. I have a wonderful friend who descends from the CA gold rush. She's an authority on Chinese American history, and I used to have her come into my classroom. She's a great speaker and presenter, too -- poet, publisher, artist, songwriter, on and on....her website is http://earthen.com/ . I first met her at Women Writing the West. But her mother was raised in a Chinese laundry and she wrote her biography....fascinating, fabulous history. I think she is one of those amazing individuals who have the history just oozing out of her!

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    2. I forgot to add: Her name is Carolyn Wing Greenlee.....

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    3. Thanks Gail. I'll look her up.

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    4. The title of the book Carolyn wrote about her mother's life is INSIDE THE OY QUONG LAUNDRY.

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  6. Gail, what a wonderful post. I would never have even given Chinese laundries a second thought, because truthfully, I didn't know enough about them. But to think they had their own "protection" who soon become their "owners" in a way--and the protocol of doing business...that is all just so fascinating.

    Thanks for bringing us this piece of history. Loved it!
    Cheryl

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    1. Thanks, Cheryl! Because our area was part of the Gold Rush, we had a lot of Chinese history here, so it's always been a topic of research and interest for me. Our local museums, though small, have collected some fascinating artifacts, too. I work as a volunteer curator at one and I'm always digging around looking for that odd bit of history.... I think it's one of the things I love best about historical and western fiction -- being able to dig into the treasure trove of stored and obscure bits of history.
      Thanks for stopping by! I may do a Part II of the Chinese history as I only scratched the surface with this first blog :-)

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  7. Gail,
    I'm a little late, but a wonderful post. Thanks for all the great info!

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