Tuesday, 17 August 2010


"Sud-U-Like" was a fascinating programme on Radio 4 exploring the history and culture of the UK laundrette, including the famous levi jeans advert which was set in a laundrette.

From the very first UK laundrette in Queensway, West London (opened in 1949) to present day laundry-services, the laundrette has played a vital part in the UK's modern history. But is the popular opinion of laundrettes as unsavoury places to visit only when you are at your lowest a fair assertion? As Yasmeen Khan discovers, not everyone finds laundrettes depressing places - for many, the local laundrette is as much a community centre and social hub as the pub - more Dot.com than Dot Cotton - such as Manchester's first Internet launderette, where customers can surf the net and watch films while washing their smalls!

Laundrettes came from America, a post-war import, where they were called "laundromats". The programme didn't go into the American history, which is also interesting as it shows how social need was the impetus for their expansion. The first real American "Washateria" (laundromat) opened in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 18, 1934:

It all started with the first wringer washer, built in 1907. During the Depression, enterprising businesspeople started using wringer washers to operate public laundries. These businesses were originally drop-off services, where customers left their laundry to have someone wash it for them. Later on, customers could rent the machines to use themselves. "People took wringer washers and put them in a building," says Lionel Bogut, a laundry expert who's been in the business for more than 50 years. "They would tap hot water to each of the washers, and people would come in and rent them for an hour or two." Electric washers were not produced until the late 1930s. When manufacturers eventually added coin slots to the machines in the late 1950s, true coin-operated laundries came into existence. A coin-laundry construction boom followed. There was such a high demand for these stores that anyone who built one was almost guaranteed a profit. The owners of coin-operated laundries didn't need to keep their stores clean and machines working to attract customers and make a profit. As a result, many laundromats were kept in poor condition.(1)

I certainly remember laundrettes from my student days in Exeter - actually, students in lodgings was one facet of laundrette use that the programme forgot to mention. The laundrette in St David's Hill, Exeter, in those days was certainly a somewhat dingy and run-down affair, and I'd take a book and go there once or twice a week for an hour or so. Despite their decline, there is still one at St Brelade's which seems to do well, and of course, as the Yasmeen Khan noted, when it comes to larger items such as duvets, a service wash at the laundrette is really the only option unless one has a mega-sized washing machine.

It is easy to see how laundrettes became so popular in the post-war years, where home washing machines were in their infancy and expenses, and the only drying machine was the clothes line or the mangle. I still remember the mangle we had in the early 1960s, which sat in the garage at the bottom of our small back garden in the shed.

The glory years of laundrettes are past, but they still fulfil a vital role, especially for people in bedsits, with limited space or plumbing for washing machines and tumble driers, and for holidaymakers, returning with suitcases of soiled clothing, and being faced with the prospect of a week's non-stop washing and drying at home, or one trip to the laundrette. But an interesting modern development was the laundrette where people can surf the internet while waiting for their wash to be done - rather than a chore of waiting until the wash cycle is completed, it can be an enjoyable experience. It will be interesting to see how it catches on in the UK, although in Australia, there is also one.

For the Manchester internet cafe, with views, see

This laundrette is aiming to be more than just a laundrette, but also a focus for the local community.

Northmoor Laundrette was originally set up as a Worker's Co-operative and is now run and managed as a not-for-profit company by Northmoor Community Association and is still staffed by two of the original workers who are helped by local volunteers. The aim of the Laundrette is to provide local people with a friendly environment to do their washing where they can also access information on a wide variety of subjects from local facilities, what's going on at the Community Centre through to job details and online forms and applications. Any profit that is made by the Laundrette will be fed back into the Community Association in order to help with running costs and help build towards a sustainable future for both the Laundrette and Community Centre. The Laundrette actively promotes Fair Trade by using coffee, tea, sugar etc that had been fairly traded.

They also have special rates for pensioners, a loyalty card (when you use ten washes, you get the eleventh one free)

The one for Australia looks more primitive, by comparison. It can be viewed at:

A review notes that: "Users on a budget might also appreciate some of the other benefits that we've seen at some establishments, such as, for instance the Internet Laundrette in Ferntree Gully, Victoria. Owner, John Fleming, has a Linux-powered PC available for customers who get bored doing their laundry, charging just $2 an hour to go online. He's considering installing a second and is waiting for ADSL connection."

In America, the industry is modernising considerably:

"The industry is now getting a facelift," says Brian Wallace, president and CEO of the Coin Laundry Association, a national association for self-service laundry owners. "There's a trend toward coin laundries being more comfortable for the customer." The newer laundries have snack bars, a place to leave off and pick up dry cleaning, and video games. Some of them don't even use coins. Instead, customers use swipe cards that subtract the cost of the wash or dry, much like a phone card or debit card. Many laundry owners also employ attendants to keep an eye on the store and help customers use the equipment.(1)

There's also an amusing review of some UK laundrettes online (2).

The comments range from the informative to the highly amusing. Here is a sample of two:

High Street, Moseley, Birmingham

This has to be the ultimate laundrette. It has everything - big washers and dryers (second dryer from left worked the best), quietness, an eclectic mix of users, and best of all it is almost next door to a pub (can't remember the name, sorry). So if reading or chatting aren't an option, there's always boozing to pass the time. 9 and 1/2 out of 10, only because there never seemed to be an attendant there and sometimes the washing powder machines were empty which was annoying if you were relying on them - but there's a nearby supermarket.

The Parade, Shifnal
Very welcoming, very small, and constantly attended as it is also a dry-cleaner's. The staff (well, there's only one - don't call her Dot) get full marks for helpfulness and friendliness; and the place itself has the advantage of being close to amenities but not in full view of all passers -by. This could make it boring, so take a book, just in case. However, if you go to the sandwich shop next door you can get a very cheap cup of not-bad coffee: and the young chap behind the counter is looking for potential girlfriends for his Uncle, should you be interested. On a good day, the banter between the staff of these two establishments is worth washing to watch. 8 out of 10

Lastly no review of washing would be complete without a mention of Jersey "lavoirs", or communal washing places, and how they were used. Those were the days of outside washing, infrequent, perhaps every three months. The smell of sweaty bed linen, and its infestation by bed mites, is something that tends to be glossed over when people become nostalgic about the past and the "good old days". But how good the clean sheets must have smelled, dried over sweet smelling gorse!

Court records bear witness to the importance that families attached to their right to use a lavoir. The St Cyr lavoir, in St John, is a particularly good example of what was, in reality, no more than an area where certain householders agreed to maintain a facility for the communal washing of clothes and linen. In the local patois lavoirs were known as "Douets à laver". The lavoirs in Jersey vary greatly in date and style. Some, like the one at St Cyr, were shared by several well-to-do families and are well built and fairly elaborate. Others are less grand and at their simplest consist of a rough stone or two, appropriately placed in a stream. There were a considerable number of Lavoirs in Jersey. Many still remain in various states of repair, but others are lost; some are only identifiable from written evidence and others by the recollection of people who remember a specific place being used for washing. One example recently came to light when the daughter of a former tenant of Ponterrin Mill, in St Saviour, was invited to view ongoing excavations. She was able to point out the stone on which her grandmother washed clothes until the 1920's.

Our forebears did not regard washing as a daily chore and wash days, particularly for bed linen, were in part dependant upon the seasons. It was, for instance, good practice to wash when the gorse was just coming into flower. The linen could then be spread over the gorse to dry, thereby acquiring the scent of fresh young flowers, a pleasing smell which transferred to the linen store. (3)

(1) http://www.entrepreneur.com/downloads/guides/1162_CoinOperated_ch1.pdf
(2) http://www.lordbothwell.co.uk/laundrette.html
(3) http://www.societe-jersiaise.org/history/st-cyr-abreuvoir-lavoir-kiln.html

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