Published by H-Women@h-net.msu.edu (March, 2000)

Arwen P. Mohun. Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940. Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. x + 348 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliographical essay, index. $48.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8018-6002-4.

Reviewed for H-Women by Thomas C. Jepsen
tjepsen@mindspring.com, National Coalition of Independent Scholars

The Laundry Business: Steam Laundries in the United States and Great Britain
Laundry, as Arwen Mohun observes in the introduction to Steam Laundries, is a problem that refuses to go away; thus the relative lack of literature on the technology and industrialization of laundry work is especially surprising. Mohun has gone a long way toward remedying this deficit with her book.

Mohun, associate professor of history at the University of Delaware, begins by telling us what this book is _not_ about; it is not a general history of laundry technique, or the work of women as laundresses. Rather, it is focused on the industrialization of laundry work which occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America and Great Britain, and the resulting factory organization of laundry work in the form of commercial "steam laundries."

The book is divided into two parts. Part one provides cultural and historical background on laundry work and the origins of the laundry business between 1880 and 1920. While laundry work remained essentially unchanged until the middle of the nineteenth century, the simultaneous development of machines for washing clothes combined with an emerging Victorian ethic which emphasized cleanliness brought about revolutionary changes in the way washing was done. Entrepreneurs and capitalists opened large commercial laundry facilities that resembled factories in their structure and organization of labor. Mohun explores the gender issues that began to emerge between the predominantly male laundry owners and the largely female work force, and the attempts to unionize the laundry workers.

Part two is focused on the mature phase of the laundry industry, from roughly 1920 to 1940, and its decline with the introduction of the electric washing machine into the middle-class home. Mohun discusses the racial issues that arose in the United States as African-American women began to replace women of European ancestry as laundry workers, and the increasing level of state involvement in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom as governments attempted to regulate wages and working conditions. Finally, Mohun describes the long decline of the industry, which she ascribes primarily to the inability of the laundries to compete against new middle-class cultural norms that emphasized the advantages of doing laundry in the home, and secondarily to the failure of the business to find a "Henry Ford" who could overcome the problem of rising labor costs in order to increase production.

Mohun makes excellent use of the trade journals of the laundry industry as sources, both in providing technical detail on the laundry business itself, and as a means of exploring the attitudes of the laundry owners toward their employees. The pages of these journals reveal a preoccupation with gender roles among the male laundry managers, perhaps indicative of underlying anxieties about their presence in a traditionally female occupation. Unfortunately, there is little corresponding narrative from the viewpoint of the women who worked in the laundries. While the journal material is effective, the book would also have benefitted from more first-person accounts, perhaps oral histories from retired laundry workers and managers.

One aspect of the work which I found particularly intriguing was the way in which steam laundries first followed, and then diverged from, the standard pattern of industrialization in factories, and the unanticipated effect that the introduction of electricity had on them. Early on, the author mentions Ruth Schwartz Cowan's description of the steam laundry as a "technological road not taken," due to its failure to lure consumers away from doing laundry at home.[1] Mohun's analysis suggests both technological and cultural reasons for the victory of the home washing machine over the commercial laundry. Like other nineteenth-century factories, steam laundries started out using belt-driven washing machines running from a series of overhead drive spindles; as David Nye has shown, factories improved their efficiency by mounting electric motors directly on machines, eliminating the need for drive belts.[2]

However, unlike the power loom or the turret lathe, adding an electric motor to the washing machine created the possibility of migrating the technology out of the factory and into the home; all that was needed was an advertising campaign on the part of electrical manufacturers to create consumer acceptance. (There is a surprising parallel here with the computer industry; the refinement of integrated circuit technology enabled the mainframe computer to be shrunk to the size of the personal computer, which was then able to migrate out of the industrial computer room and into the home.)

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is Mohun's analysis of gendered relationships in all aspects of the laundry industry. Gender roles played a significant part in the relationships of managers to workers, of workers to union leaders, and in the marketing of laundry technology to consumers. The reader is frequently surprised at the relative rigidity of gender roles in the industry; while their British counterparts were somewhat more lenient, the male leadership of the American Laundrymen's National Association would at first not admit women as members, or even invite spouses to annual meetings.(p. 58)

As in other areas of women's work, Mohun observes that attempts to unionize the laundry workers met with mixed success; the single-sex unions formed in England in the late nineteenth century were short-lived and sporadic, and the male-dominated American Federation of Labor unions in the United States often failed to support the interests of their female members. One notable exception to this rule was the militancy of the shirt collar laundresses of Troy, New York, whose union activities received the full support of the male ironworker's union; it is interesting to speculate on the reasons for the unique success of unionization in Troy. Perhaps close ties of kinship and ethnicity among the predominantly Irish workers of Troy played a role.[3]

Mohun provides an interesting study of the advertising campaign waged by the washing machine manufacturers as they began to compete with the steam laundries in the 1920s and 1930s, and the gendered messages used by both sides to appeal to women consumers. While washing machine manufacturers emphasized the domestic virtues of doing the wash at home, the laundry owners emphasized the hazards of women working with complicated machinery. Women consumers were alternately depicted as "acquisitive, emotional, frivolous, and houseproud" in advertising campaigns.(p. 264)

Mohun's book is a welcome contribution to a much-neglected area and will be of interest to historians of technology, women's work, and nineteenth century industrialization. While her book does much to answer fundamental questions, it also raises questions for further study; it would be interesting to know more about Chinese laundries and laundry workers, for example, and how they managed to survive in a highly competitive market while enduring ethnic discrimination. By analyzing the intersections of technology, gender, and work, Mohun has created a solid basis for further scholarship in a variety of areas.

[1]. Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology From the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

[2]. David Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990.

[3]. Carole Turbin, Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, New York 1864-86. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu.