Dry Cleaners All the Rage in 1950s

In 1923, Johnson City had but three commercial cleaners: Johnson City Steam Laundry (112-118 W. Market), French Dry Cleaners (N. Roan at Commerce) and Arlington Pressing Parlor (115 W. Main).

The latter boasted of “Cleaning, Pressing, Dyeing and Repairing – Ladies’ Work a Specialty.” By 1953, the Arlington was all washed up, but joining the ranks of the other two were eight new competitors: Acme Dry Cleaners (202 N. Roan), Allen Cleaners (704 Buffalo), Collie Dry Cleaners (306 Oak), Deluxe Cleaners (908 W. Market), Peoples Dry Cleaners (518 W. Market), Service Dry Cleaners (431 W. Pine), Varsity Cleaners (413 W. Walnut) and White City Laundry (221-227 W. Main).

What caused this sizable increase in cleaners over that 30-year period? The population certainly didn’t grow that much. The answer lies in the hardships people had to endure to routinely wash their garments. Home laundering was no simple task in an era of large families devoid of modern plumbing. I routinely hear stories from my family members, who once lived in an old two-story log house in the 1920s on Roscoe Fitz Road in Gray.

While Monday is generally regarded as being washday, our family extended it over two days. With twelve kids living at home, they washed white clothes on Monday and colored garments on Tuesday, which included several pairs of boy’s blue jeans. Before they could perform their wash chores, they had to make several trips to fetch water from their cistern or from a nearby creek.

While the youngsters were acquiring water, mama was busy building a fire in the fireplace to heat the water. Bed sheets were boiled in a big iron pot to keep them white. The clothes were then washed, scrubbed on a washboard, squeezed dry, rinsed in fresh water, squeezed again and placed on a long outdoor clothes line to dry. Finally, they were taken down, ironed and put into use.

While dry cleaning dates back to about 1840, it was not until the first half of the twentieth century that the commercial laundry industry seized an economic opportunity to lift some of these washday burdens, at least for urban folks. This new enterprise eventually provided for home laundry pickups and deliveries for millions of households, requiring large fleets of trucks for business owners. This was a tremendous benefit for people with limited transportation.

I vividly remember Mr. Horace Jones, a driver for Johnson City Steam Laundry, routinely picking up and dropping off laundry at our apartment in the late 1940s. Over time, he essentially became a part of our family.

For budget minded patrons, these dry cleaners offered three cleaning options: Option 1 called for bringing back clean but wet clothes in a rubber bag. Option 2 gave customer completely dry clothes. Option 3 provided full service, which included ironing and folding the laundry. Mom normally chose option 2. The dry cleaning industry began to decline substantially in the mid 1950s with the introduction of automatic washers and dryers into people’s homes and the arrival of wash friendly clothing such as “wash-n-wear.”

Today, self-service washaterias and drive-by cleaners have become the norm. The once ever-present nostalgic little dry cleaning truck is now nothing but a vanishing memory from yesteryear.