The axiom reads “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” So I suppose there’s no reason to be surprised that African Americans — a community known for its spirituality — have a long history caring for and cleaning garments. The relationship between Blacks and laundry is more than an offshoot of plantation duties with a washboard. It’s an industry that has long been good to both women and the darker-skinned of the United States. Better, the clean clothes business has also proven a place where Negroes of every era have found financial success.
The idea of operating a laundry service likely traces to practical need. But as early as the 19th century that outlook began to change.
In his late 20s, tailor Thomas Jennings developed a process called “dry scouring” while operating a cleaning service. The patent he received, 3,306X in March of 1821, would become what is now known only as “dry cleaning.” The license granted to Jennings is widely believed to be the first invention licensed to an African American. Whether it is or not, it was certainly the first profitable patent. As a Freeman, Jennings circumvented the laws that would have stolen his intellectual property. His circumstance allowed Jennings to gain considerable wealth, which he funneled into abolitionist causes in the Northeast.
Jennings wouldn’t be the only one to parlay a talent for garment care into success for personal missions. Another entrepreneur was rising at the top of the western Gold Rush.
Following a grueling half-century of life as a laundress Clara Brown settled in Colorado where she established a business servicing gold prospectors and their families. She traveled west after gaining her freedom, seeking family and prosperity; she eventually discovered both. In late 1850s Central City, Colo., the former Virginia slave replicated the laundry business she’d once operated in Kansas. Brown’s good fortune in the way of turning collars back to white allowed her to not only support herself, but also to invest in the mines and aid other freed men.
By the end of the 19th century, dry cleaning and laundry services (and any business where African Americans could find good, steady income) were already flooding the movement of social progression. But in Atlanta it would soon become apparent that it was an industry of great formidability.
As slavery waned in the South, Black men and women took jobs similar to their old duties. The options weren’t many, and washing clothes remained among the worst domestic positions available to Black women. The days-long process of minding pounds of stitched cotton weaves made the autonomy of the work a frustration. However, that distance from mostly white employers gave African-American women the space to form a small union, The Washing Society, in July 1881. Through churches and affinity groups 20 women blossomed to thousands in the Atlanta area and sought a standard rate increase. Upon fear of repercussion from other day laborers, Society members won their demands and the action became known as a key pre-Civil Rights battle of wills.
The garment care industry continues as a lucrative trade for many Americans (including my family). But for a service that has such rich ties to the advancement of African Americans, it’s a shame there aren’t more public faces with brown skin profiting.