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Dirty Laundry

On This Day

Eighty-three years ago J.F. Cantrell opens the very first self-service laundromat.


With the stock market crash in 1929 followed by both the Great Depression and a major drought devastating the southern plains for several years after, life in Texas was far from hunky-dory. In 1934, a young J.F. Cantrell noticed that washing machines, of all things, were one of the luxuries many of his neighbours could not afford. To fill this gap he bought four from the market and on 18 April that year, he opened the very first self-service laundromat in the world, named ‘Washateria’.


Cantrell’s washers were not coin operated but were very popular, time-saving and sweat-free machines. The laundromat had no dryers, he charged by the hour and customers had to bring their own soap. It opened in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, which in the late 19th century was an important trading post at the end of the Chisholm Trail. Today the city is famed for its international art institution, the Kimbell Art Museum designed by Louis Kahn, among other things such as rodeos, soccer, cowgirls and Trump voters.


The electric-powered washing machine, since its invention in 1908, has tread a discursive path into a commercial and technologically-driven landscape resulting in smart homes and a declining dependence on public and shared utilities. The dual existence of domesticated and non-domesticated technology, since Cantrell’s generation, has become steadfast in our cities and something of a cultural abundance. They tell a story of segregation, of inequality and low pay.


American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings often included the parodied use of advertising imagery suggesting consumerism and home making from the 60s, including his bright yellow Washing Machine in 1961. In cinema, the 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette depicted the already established romanticism associated with public laundry by showing steamy rendezvous on the big screen with smalls spinning three-sixty in the background. This external, non-domesticated laundry typology plays host to characters below the comfortably middle or upper class, and doing so liberates a type of outsider culture.


Perhaps it’s overly sentimental and nostalgic to glamourise the culture of ‘then’ over the culture of ‘now’, but when considering the transformation from Washateria-induced motley communion into an expensive and isolated chore-for-one it’s hard to see what measurable benefit is derived from sovereign laundry. As a public condition that brings people together accidentally or otherwise that wouldn’t ordinarily mix, the Washateria provides a social grant above its layman’s description. Amidsdt a shrinking little Britain tired of Brexit, Boris and borders, this charming citadel of place, culture and community needs to be maintained more than ever.


From the 1980s peak of 12,000 there are now less than 3,000 laundromats left in the UK, and there are few other concepts that offer to sustain any similar level of unifying status in our cityscapes. Our homes get smarter, more introverted and more personalised, meanwhile public space and the opportunity to diversify grows smaller. Despite the appearance of comfort and convenience that often comes with domesticated technologies, they develop a singular and anti-plural motive which directly accelerates a decline in social space in the city. Perhaps it’s time to re-air our dirty laundry.


Still image from Launderette, a 1985 Levi's advert featuring Nick Kamen.