Laundry is a mundane subject, but it has an interesting history over the past century and a half. Most households today have a washing machine and dryer. Apartment dwellers make use of a laundry room. Those who do not have access to those appliances use the equipment in the local laundromat.
Laundry day in the 19th century, with no electric appliances, meant a great deal of backbreaking and unpleasant labour. Water had to be heated on stoves, and hauled to laundry tubs. Muscle power provided the energy to agitate the clothes. It was a job no one looked forward to.
Wealthier households employed a servant to do the work. Impoverished women and widows sometimes earned their living by taking in washing from wealthier neighbours. Sometimes they went to their customers’ residences to do their laundry.
By the 1860s, professional laundries began to appear in this part of Ontario. Proprietors set up their operations in the downtown area, and accepted bags and baskets of laundry. Their facilities were far superior to those in any residence: ample hot water, machinery sometimes operated with a small steam engine, and staff skilled at ironing and mending clothing. They often used the term “steam laundry” in their names.
Though many small towns had a laundry by 1880, most families, or rather, wives and daughters, continued to do laundry at home. Sometimes, when the laundry piled up, they would haul it to the laundry rather than suffer sore backs and scalded hands.
During the 1870s, the local laundries encountered competition from a company called the Parisian Steam Laundry and its innovative method of doing business. That company began in Detroit about 1870, and for its first years catered to a market in southeast Michigan.
What was revolutionary about the Parisian Laundry was its structure. There was only one processing location. Customers in small towns around the city would take their dirty clothes in bags to a local agent. He would bundle them up each day and ship the parcel by train to the central plant in Detroit. Staff there would wash, bleach, iron, repair and fold the laundry, then ship it back to the local agent. Typical turn-around time was three days. Employment at the Detroit plant surpassed 80 in the late 1870s, and the operation handled about 20,000 pieces of laundry each day.
The Parisian Steam Laundry enjoyed immediate success in Michigan, and in 1873 the management set up a branch plant in Windsor to serve the Canadian market. By then, Windsor had rail connections that put the plant within easy range of customers as far away as the Toronto area.
A major chore for Parisian was the setting up of its network of local agents. None were full time employees. Typically, someone who operated an office in a central location in town, or a small business, would be hired by the company. The range was wide: barbers, grain buyers, insurance agents, and storekeepers are on the list. In a few cases, a hotel would act as agent. There were agencies as far away as Ottawa, though service to them took a couple of days longer than to southwestern Ontario points.
It is a certainty that the agents operated on some sort of commission basis. The returns were undoubtedly small, but an extra dollar or two would be welcome to businessmen who already operated a store or office. Some of the agents were in towns too small to support a local laundry.
A special service offered by the Parisian Steam Laundry was that washed clothes could be shipped to any agency in Ontario at no extra charge. That was a great boon to travelling salesmen. They could send their laundry away when they left one town, and pick it up at another town a couple of days later.
A major difficulty in tracing the history and operations of the firm is that it very rarely advertised in newspapers, and the bulk of its agents seldom listed their affiliation in business directories. Stumbling on them is therefore a hit-and-miss exercise.
The Fergus agent, James Philip, did run a few advertisements in 1879, but those were of a defensive nature. A local laundry had recently set up shop in town, and the proprietor assured his customers that Parisian was closing its Fergus agency. The furious Parisian agent, James Philip, asserted that Parisian was in Fergus for the long haul. Probably with the encouragement of head office, he raised the stakes by substantially reducing prices. The new rate card priced shirts at five cents and cuffs at a cent each. The competitor soon pulled up stakes and moved on.
In 1887, the Parisian Steam Laundry moved its Canadian operations to London, a more central location for shipping to and from its southern Ontario agents. The new plant contained custom-made equipment designed by the firm’s employees. The London plant was 44 by 140 feet in size, and opened with 50 employees.
Two years later the company opened a second plant, in Toronto Junction, then a separate municipality but now swallowed up by the Queen City. The advantage of the Junction location was the close proximity of railway stations and convenient access to lines connecting with much of the province.
Operating the extensive network of agents and shipping laundry all over the province meant profit margins were thin. It was only the scale of the operation that made it feasible from a business point of view. Seeking better profits, in the late 1880s the firm began to scale down its network, and to concentrate on the larger centres, such as Toronto, Hamilton and London.
The Toronto operation moved from the Junction to downtown, initially to an Adelaide Street building, and after a fire there, to a large building at 610 King Street West. Toronto customers had door-to-door pick up and delivery service. Parisian operated a fleet of 12 horse-drawn wagons to reach customers all over the city.
It appears that Parisian had no agents in Wellington County after the mid-1890s. By then, there were new competitors in the small towns. Chinese labourers who had been brought to Canada by railway contractors entered the laundry business en masse during the 1890s.
They were willing to work in the hot damp conditions for little pay, often employing family members. They were able to beat the prices charged by Parisian, and could offer much faster service to local residents. By the early 20th century, the Chinese dominated the laundry business in Ontario. In 1907, for example, Chinese proprietors ran 242 of the 273 laundries in Toronto.
The Parisian Steam Laundry had problems in addition to the aggressive competition of the Chinese laundries. In 1896, the company faced charges of violating labour laws. Management forced girls employed in the Toronto plant to work in excess of the 60 hours allowed by the law. And a few years later, the Canadian manager looted the till and departed with his wife and family for the land of the free.
That precipitated a financial crisis, which led to a reorganization of the Canadian operation by a group of Hamilton capitalists. The company carried on into the 1930s as a Canadian-owned concern, operating as Parisian Laundry and Dry Cleaners.
By then, the firm and its local agencies were just memories to small town residents. The local Chinese laundries had also passed into history after World War I. They were largely the victims of electricity and the proliferation of washing machines and water heaters. Many of the Chinese laundrymen stayed in their adopted towns, closing their laundries and opening restaurants.
But that is a story for another time.