Steam Laundries

Review: Jeffrey Hornstein on Arwen Mohun

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.
Published by EH.NET, November 2000.

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.

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Posted: 14 November 2000