Dateline1885: Victorian drycleaning

5 February 2020

Howard Bradley gets into his Tardis and time travels to investigate the drycleaning techniques in use when LCN first came on the scene in the guise of Laundry Journal. Things have certainly changed in 135 years

The year is 1885 and it is launch year of Laundry Journal, the precurser of LCN. It was also the year that the AE Hawley Dye Works were founded in Hinckley, Leicestershire which went on to become Sketchley.

Solvents may have been different in 1885 with kerosene or the newly invented white spirit the choices of the day, but the arguments about what was best for cleaning were still intense.

In France, spirit cleaning was widely known as American cleaning and in the USA, it was known as French cleaning. With neither the French nor Americans being too popular with the British back then we just did our own thing and called it cleaning.

The length of time that people were prepared to wait for their items would have been reckoned in weeks not hours. Today, the preparation of a modern facility usually involves turning on a few valves and switches (and the kettle) but back in 1885 it was a rather longer affair.

In 1885 you would have needed: Three or four large vessels with tight fitting lids; very large flat pan; tables; chairs; hangers; clothes pins; clothes brushes (hogs hair); whisk brooms; bath towels; kerosene; tablet soap; and spotting reagents – but not as you know them.

It is important to remember that all of this had to be laid out to use in a wide, open space, (outside would be best so good luck on cold or wet days).

The spotting kit would consist of a few bottles of agent from different companies, but generally designed as wet side and dry side agents along with some pre-brushing detergents.

The spotting kit back then will often have had all of the following in its armoury. Ammonia, lemon juice, vinegar, water, starched water, Javelle water, distilled water, blotting paper, borax, wood alcohol, lard, turpentine, salts of lemon, sour milk, carbon tetrachloride, fallers earth, alcohol, sweet milk, mustard, corn meal, ink eradicators, hydrogen peroxide, potassium permanganate, chloroform, cream of tartar, pipe clay and glycerine.

Now we have all of our equipment beautifully laid out we can start the process of cleaning. There will at least be some familiarity to this procedure for most of you, but do not expect much mention of different fabric types as they were allnatural back then.

  • Step 1. Sort the clothing out according to colour.
  • Step 2. Examine the nature of spots.
  • Step 3. Mark with thread any stain or mark that is difficult to see.
  • Step 4. Get the cleaning agents from your kit that you think that you will need.
  • Step 5. Set up the vessels, tables, chairs in a shaded area.
  • Step 6. Brush all garments, turning pockets and folds inside out.
  • Step 7. Treat spots / stains according to their type. (it would take an entire book in order to write a description of the spot removal methods for these types of agents.
  • Step 8. Fill all three vessels about three quarters full with pure kerosene.
  • Step 9. Put very light and white coloured garments in vessel one and agitate.
  • Step 10. Remove light garments from vessel 1 and allow to drip into vessel 1.
  • Step 11. Place load into vessel 2 and cover with lid, place second slightly darker load into vessel 1.
  • Step 12. Take light load from Vessel 2 and allow surplus kerosene to drip into vessel 2. Then place load into vessel 3.
  • Step 13. Take slightly darker load from vessel 1 and place in vessel 2 as per 1st load.
  • Step 14. Continue processing loads by colour and leave darkest items for last.
  • Step 15. As each load comes out of vessel 3, lay each item flat on a table or board and look for remaining stains and treat with alcohol.
  • Step 16. For all but the heaviest of garments, they should be placed on hangers and allowed to dry for a minimum of 36 hours.

It should be noted that with each successive wash the kerosene will get darker with loose dyes and staining matter. Once all the garments have been processed gather large empty vats and copious amounts of muslin cloth. Lay the cloth over the vats and tie tightly in place. Pour the used kerosene from the containers onto the cloth and allow to filter through. repeat with clean muslin until the kerosene runs clear. On balance, I’m pretty sure I prefer how things are done nowadays.

BOX OF TRICKS: This is what the ‘wet side’ stain cupboard of a drycleaner looked like in 1885 and well knto the fi rst decade of the 20th century

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