History’s 5 Worst Ways of Doing Laundry
All of human progress can be tracked by the history of laundry. Originally, of course, we never had to wash clothes because we hadn’t invented clothes yet. Eventually, we will again never wash clothes, once we outlaw clothes once and for all. Between those two points stretches a long timeline in which we’ve found increasingly elaborate ways of making shirts less smelly.
You may have heard, for example, of the several cultures who’d collect everyone’s urine to use as laundry detergent. But did you know about the people who tried...
Not Washing at All, For Fearing of Angering Water Dragons
Some of our early records of how the ancient Mongols lived come from Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, an explorer from the 1200s. He noted that Mongols drank alcoholic horse milk and burned dung for warmth (nothing wrong with either of those things; some people do both of them even today). He also observed that they didn’t wash themselves very often. Thirteenth-century Europe isn’t terribly famous for its hygiene, compared to eras after that or before that, so if he considered this worth noting, it must have left quite an impression on him.
But at least the Mongols washed themselves sometimes. Their clothes, they didn’t wash at all — or at least, they had specific regulations banning laundry. The reason, according to 14th-century Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi, was that dirtying the water angered the water dragons and therefore spelled doom for everyone. It’s possible that this wasn’t a literal belief, and it was more about preserving the cleanliness of the water supply than avoiding an actual dragon’s wrath.
The Mongols of this period also associated clothes washing with thunderstorms. Apparently, hanging wet clothes could trigger storms, which was obviously very dangerous. For these various reasons, laundry was forbidden, and someone caught washing clothes faced a formal beating. Incidentally, according to Mongol beauty standards, it was highly valuable to have a very small nose.
Mailing Clothes Home So Mom Could Wash Them
If sitcoms have educated us well about what college life is like, kids keep popping back home with a garbage bag of dirty clothes so mom can do their laundry. We don’t know how accurate that is — dorms stocked with washing machines make laundry quite convenient for a college student, more so than for most people worldwide — but it was true in the past, only more ridiculous.
At the start of the 20th century, colleges had no washing machines, and laundromats didn’t exist. Back home, though, the family had a dedicated washing day, perhaps assisted by hired help. So, starting in the 1910s and lasting half a century, college students would send their dirty clothes back home by post. This was economical back then because the postal service was still trying to figure out how much to charge for parcels (this was also the era of mailing buildings piece-by-piece and mailing live babies). Students bought dedicated “laundry cases” for these trips — not hampers but metal or fiber containers durable enough for repeated cross-country trips:
Parents would then post the box back, with clean clothes and also maybe some homemade cookies. Neither side could include any written message with the parcel else that would violate postal regulations. This was a rule that suited students just fine.
Dousing Clothes in Gasoline
In the 1940s, people were using a marvelous new substance for cleaning clothes — gasoline! Gasoline would wash away stains much like water, but it stood less a chance of dissolving the dyes in clothes and otherwise ruining the material.
These people were, in fact, simply doing what’s known as dry cleaning, washing clothes with some non-water solvent. But when a professional dry cleaner does the job, whether with gasoline or with some other more dedicated carbon-chain fluid, the whole operation is arranged around not letting the stuff catch fire, and keeping the fumes from flying around everywhere. Try the same thing yourself, and you invite danger.
And so, in 1941, the California Fire Marshal produced the following PSA, warning people that filling big bowls with gasoline in your kitchen was a bit of a hazard. You’ll find the description of a professional establishment quite reassuring, compared with the housewife splashing gasoline next to various flames. Though, you might wince at the reference to one of the dry cleaner’s safety measures: asbestos blankets.
The PSA continues, excitingly showing the consequences of actual fires at the dry cleaners (no big deal) and at home (quite deadly). Hold back your laughter as you see the panicked housewife covered in the best flames that government 1941 special effects could create. Then solemnly shake your head as you see her in a full face bandage, the likes of which you might otherwise only know from that one Twilight Zone episode.
Letting a Chimp Do It
In 2019, animal handlers in the Lehe Ledu Theme Park in Chongqing, China, washed some clothes by hand in front of the chimp exhibit. They then left a shirt in the enclosure, along with a bar of soap. “Chimp perceive, chimp repeat,” as the old saying goes, and soon, Yuhui the chimpanzee was dipping the shirt in water and scouring it with soap, just as he’d seen humans do.
Will an army of happy chimps now rid us of all our laundry woes, by taking on all clothes-washing duties henceforth? That is less than certain. Yuhui spent half an hour on that one shirt, repeating the motions with no knowledge of what he was doing or how long he should do it. We are deeply unhappy to have to report this, but it appears as though chimpanzees may not be very adept at household chores after all.
Not Washing at All, Because You’re in Spaaaaace
In the Indian city of Panipat, workers recycle clothes from countries like America, Italy and France. We don’t mean they resell the clothes — they recycle them, meaning they break the clothes down into threads that are then made into new clothes. A lot of the used clothes they receive appear to be in good condition, creating a mystery over why anyone discarded them in the first place. The workers have a theory. They think that in the West, water is extremely scarce. Water costs a lot, while clothes cost little, which means Westerners can’t afford to wash their clothes. It’s more economical to throw them away and buy new ones.
There is not really any advanced place on Earth where water is worth more than clothing, rendering clothes disposable. A place like that does exist, however, a little bit away from Earth: the International Space Station. Water is extremely precious there, and they recycle all of it, which includes processing urine back into drinking water.
Laundry uses tremendous amounts of water. Even assuming you could recycle laundry water and use it over and over, doing laundry aboard the space station would require bringing up additional water beyond what the place already carries. That’s an unjustifiable extra weight. It’s more economical to bring up extra clothes instead of water. An astronaut goes through 150 pounds of clothes a year, which sounds like a lot, but the water needed to wash one set of clothes for a year would weigh even more.
A space station astronaut might wear one pair of underwear for four days, or a week. Other clothes, they wear for much longer, perhaps for months. Climate control in the station means they don’t sweat that much, but they do exercise every day, and by the end of each piece of clothing’s lifespan, it’s stiff on the astronaut’s body. Then our brave spacefarer finally peels it off and digs out fresh replacements from storage.
As for the dirty stuff, they don’t store that for an eventual return to Earth. Conditions are too cramped for that to make sense. Instead, when a supply vessel comes up to the station, the astronauts unload it and then fill it with dirty clothes and other trash. They launch it back to Earth, not to land on the ground, but to burn in the atmosphere.
Next time you see this through your telescope, make a wish. Something like, “I wish that I always have plenty of water and as many pairs of clean underpants as I need.”