Laundry

This is the first in a series of articles about urban infrastructure and climate change.

Wash day on the plantation, c1887

Any good trip abroad will highlight things in our lives that we take for granted. In October 2015, I travelled from San Francisco to the Philippines for some real talk about laundry with my Filipino friend Imman. It was one of my favorite conversations of the year — a moment when a seemingly small cultural difference unraveled into something bigger about technology and urban planning. Imman asked me how Americans have time to do laundry.

“I don’t know, we just…do it?”, I said.

As a kid, my mom did the laundry for all of us with our washer and dryer. In college I used the coin-operated Speed Queen machines in the dormitory basement. Doing my laundry helped me feel like an adult in an otherwise infantilizing university environment. Since then, I’ve been lucky to have a washer and dryer right in my apartment. For our household of two, laundry takes just a few minutes a week.

But Imman’s question got me wondering how we got here, and whether we are doing our laundry in the most efficient way.


Laundry in the United States didn’t become a weekly chore until the 19th century. Before then, clothes were made of rugged material like wool, leather, or felt, and were not easy to wash. Dirty shirt? Shake it off!

Auguste Renoir’s Washerwoman (1916)

With industrialization came the manufacture of cotton cloth. People started owning more clothing, and there was a movement toward keeping ourselves clean as a way to prevent disease. This meant more laundry. For a 19th century housewife, “wash day” was laborious and time-consuming. You had to make detergent from lye and animal fat. You had to chop wood for the fire, or get your son or husband to do it. And you needed a lot of elbow grease to scrub the clothes. And that doesn’t even include the ironing. So, if you had extra cash, you would hire the help of a washerwoman — most likely a woman of color. A washerwoman in 1880 could make about US$140 per month (in 2016 dollars).

Competition started heating up, though. Toward the mid-1800s, the first big wave of Chinese immigrants came to the United States. They started hand laundries serving neighborhoods in cities. In 1880, two-thirds of San Francisco’s 320 laundries were Chinese-owned. By the late 1800s, any American city with a Chinese immigrant population had Chinese-owned laundries.

A Chinese laundry in California, around 1910. (California State Library)

As the power grid began to come online in the late 1800s, commercial mechanized laundries began to spring up. Originally catering to institutional clients and single men, these commercial laundries soon began marketing directly to housewives. The service was cheaper than hiring a washerwoman.

A racist ad for a Texas commercial laundry, early 20th cent.

The commercial and Chinese hand laundries peaked in the 1920s. Their decline was brought about in the following decades by the expansion of the power grid and the lowering costs of domestic washing machines. Carter G. Woodson, the father of black history in America, wrote a tribute to the “negro washerwoman” in 1930, saying, “Because of the rise of the race from drudgery and the mechanization of the industrial world the washerwoman is rapidly passing out.” He wrote, “she gave her life as a sacrifice for others.” And by 1940, over 60% of the 25 million homes with electricity in America had a washing machine.

With the development of the US suburb after World War II came the bold vision of a washing machine in every home. Washing machines were aggressively marketed to housewives. Tide powdered detergent launched in 1946. Coin operated laundromats proliferated to bridge the gap and to promote the washing machine. And pretty soon, if you didn’t have a washing machine in your home, you weren’t “keeping up with the Joneses”.


In the Philippines, laundry practices fall into two camps: urban and rural. In the rural provinces, in many villages, laundry day happens each week by the river, it’s done by hand, and it’s a communal activity. Any technology that makes clean water easier to access can be a huge step. A covered area with a communal basin and fresh spring water makes laundry and cooking much easier. With the country’s 7,000 islands and numerous villages, building basic rural water infrastructure is an ongoing challenge.

Wash Day, Philippines (c. 1911–1921)

In the cities, laundry has historically been done by hand, and only in the past couple decades have home washing machines become prominent. Today in Manila, most middle-class homes have washing machines and “house help” — young women from the provinces who live with Manilan families and handle domestic tasks. Often they are treated like an extension of the family, working for the same house for many years at a time. Apart from room and board, they make about US$80 per month, often sending money back home to their families.

Clothes dryers are rare in the Philippines. It’s always hot outside, and people opt to line dry. My Filipino friend considers line drying superior because the UV light kills germs more effectively. This is crucial in the tropics, which lack the public health benefit of a cold winter.

In stark contrast, many American homeowners associations have banned the use of outdoor clotheslines entirely. The sight of drying clothes is viewed as an eyesore or a marker of poverty that lowers property values. San Francisco had a ban on clotheslines until October, 2015. Thanks to a recent Right to Dry movement, California and some other states have repealed these bans.

Laundromats in the Philippines are a mix of home-based businesses, with one or two washing machines and family members helping out, and laundry chains. Self-service, coin operated laundromats are virtually nonexistent, but there are some bigger modern facilities doing larger-scale laundering. (Manila’s first commercial laundry began in 1946 when Dominador S. Asis, Sr. purchased a US field laundry trailer from the departing American troops.)

Returning to my friend’s question about how Americans find the time to do laundry, the answer is: we do it because it’s the most economical and time-efficient way. Laundry in my home of two takes about 25 minutes per week. For 7 kilos of laundry, I would spend US$35 for wash-and-fold with pickup and delivery, using Washio in San Francisco. For that to be reasonable, my 25 minutes would have to valued at about US$85/hour. And I’d be giving up the therapeutic nature of the activity. So, I’m happy to keep the money. (If I opt to line dry, it adds about 6 minutes per load, bringing the hourly rate down to US$68/hour.)

In the Philippines, that same 7 kilos of laundry can be picked up, washed and folded, and delivered for around US$4.30. So, for many people in Manila, it makes sense.

So, we end up here: Nearly every house on my block has a washing machine and a clothes dryer, and they are all idle more than 99% of the time. I think we have reached a local maxima in the efficiency of these appliances. Per pound of laundry, large-scale tunnel washers use less than half of the water required by the best high-efficiency home washing machines available. If all our laundry went through tunnel washers, the US would save at least 3 billion gallons of water per week.*

There are big logistical barriers to building such a system in the US. Autonomous vehicles may help — I can imagine a laundry car that runs around doing pickups and deliveries of personal laundry, finally making it as simple and affordable as using your own machine at home. But there are cultural barriers: We like doing our laundry in private. We don’t like the idea of strangers handling our clothes — clean or dirty. I think many of us see our clothes as an extension of our bodies, so it makes us uneasy. And for me, there’s a pleasant intimacy in folding warm clothes and putting them away. There’s a quiet moment after the dryer stops. No phone, no laptop. Just me and the clothes. If I gave that up, I would want to replace it with something as meditative.

Another huge barrier for us is density. The most dense US city is half as dense as Metro Manila. American low-density suburban housing makes it a hassle to share resources with neighbors. And Manila’s urban density affords many efficiencies. And while more efficient laundry may not be the lowest-hanging fruit with regard to climate change, I think it’s just one example among many in which low-density living is a barrier in tackling climate change.

For me, for now, I will incorporate line drying into my routine at least some of the time, and I hope I will learn to make it an enjoyable ritual — a moment of contemplation in the warm sun.

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Sources:
Deconstructing Laundry: Gendered Technologies and the Reluctant Redesign of Household Labor — by Constance L. Shehan and Amanda B. Moras, Michigan Family Review
Atlanta’s Washerwoman Strike — AFL-CIO
Debate Follows Bills to Remove Clotheslines Bans — NY Times, Oct. 10, 2009
How much do you really save by air drying your clothes? — The Simple Dollar
Some thoughts about buying a clothes dryer by Connie Veneracion
Washing Clothes Before Chinese
The Negro Washerwoman by Carter G. Woodson, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. XV, July 1930, No. 3
History of Chinese Laundries
Philippines clothes washing
Metropole Laundry history — WikiPilipinas
Consumer Reports washing machine efficiency report — April, 2015
Brown signs bill reversing bans on clotheslines — San Francisco Chronicle, Oct 8, 2015

*Notes on estimate of gallons saved per week:
US weekly laundry load = 304 million people * 15 lbs of clothing
HE machine efficiency = 1.25 gallons of water per lb
Tunnel washer efficiency = 0.6 gallons of water per lb
US weekly laundry load * HE machine efficiency - US weekly laundry load * Tunnel washer efficiency = 2.96 billion gallons saved, but the true savings must be much higher because I assume everyone has the best HE home washing machine on the market. Older top-loaders used upwards of 5 gallons per lb.