Vintage Ads put up this advertisement in which a collection of “Chinese” bemoan the invention of the compact washer/dryer (text below):
If you know a little Chinese, you might sense these aren’t the kindest words you’ve seen.
Some of our Chinese laundrymen friends have decided to throw in the towel.
It seems this new intruder is quickly becoming a hit with quite a few apartment dwellers, mobile homers, bacherlors, and working girls–their usual clientele.
It’s the new compact Hoover Washer. That spin-drys too.
This stereotype–that Chinese men were professional launderers–is still around today (e.g., the U-Washee laundromat and the shoe company and restuarant called “Chinese Laundry”), but it may be unfamiliar to some.
Many Chinese men ran laundry businesses between the late 19th century and the end of World War II. They turned to laundry because they were shut out of other types of work (such as mining, fishing, farming, and manufacturing) and didn’t have the English skills or capital to make other choices. Washing and ironing was considered women’s work, so it was low status and also posed no threat to white, male workers.
Drawing of an 1881 Chinese laundry in San Francisco (source):
According to sources cited in Wikipedia, “Around 1900, one in four ethnic Chinese men in the U.S. worked in a laundry, typically working 10 to 16 hours a day.” John Jung, who grew up behind a Chinese laundry and wrote a book about the business, explains that “New York City [alone] had an estimated 3,550 Chinese laundries at the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s.”
As the vintage ad suggests, the Chinese laundry disappeared into history not because discrimination disappeared, but because of technological innovation.
Originally posted in 2010.
Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.