Oi Polloi

Long Live the Laundrette

Published: Fri Nov 03 2017


To coincide with those nice new, washing powder-esque Burlington sock boxes we’ve done, we got Modernist Magazine editor Eddy Rhead to type up something about laundrettes. Take it away Eddy…

As I passed through the town where I grew up recently I noticed the old laundrette in the parade of shops I used to hang about on had closed down. There was a small element of nostalgic sadness but I can’t say I was very surprised, it had hung on a lot longer than I had ever imagined. 

What was surprising however was when, a few weeks later, the old machines and driers were ripped out and replaced with new machines. The laundrette wasn't closing for good — but was in fact just getting refurbished and continuing in business.

The laundrette, I had assumed, had surely become an anachronism in 21st century Britain, a throwback to another time with no place in our modern lives. I was clearly wrong. 

Washing clothes on a regular basis was, up until the 20th century, very much the preserve of the rich. The poor had little or no access to clothes washing facility and laundry was very low down on the list of priorities for many. The Victorian age bought about a change in attitudes towards public health and the rapid growth of Britain's industrial cities and the subsequent insanitary and filthy conditions many were forced to live in, brought into sharp focus the need for sanitation and basic levels of hygiene. 

Often driven by middle class patriarchal angst, the working classes were 'encouraged' to bathe more often and public baths were built by local councils. These often had laundries attached so clothes could be washed too, with many commercial laundries also appearing. 

In the 19th and early 20th century doing laundry in the home was a tedious and back breaking chore, left to servants in richer households and to the women in working class homes, often taking up days rather than hours, to wash, rinse and dry clothes for a family.

Rudimentary washing machines started to appear in the 1920s and 30s but they were well out reach of all but the richest households. The laundrette as a concept had first appeared in the USA in 1934 and reached the UK in 1949 when Central Wash opened in Bayswater in London and still survives to this day. 

With the washing machine still an unattainable luxury for most, laundrettes prospered in the post-war period with one on most high streets and every self-respecting parade of shops on housing estates featuring one. 

They became a social space, especially for women, and were a key meeting place in the heart of the community. As well as serving a practical function laundrettes provided a democratic space with no door policy and an open all hours practicality. In winter they provided a place for people to keep warm, be they elderly people afraid to spend money on heating at home, the homeless and vagrants or perhaps groups of kids with nowhere else to go.

I myself was introduced to laundrettes at a very early age. My mum, to earn some extra money, worked the evening shift in a local laundrette. When my dad got home from work she would work until the laundrette closed at around 10pm. If my dad was away I, the baby of family and too small to be left with my siblings, would have to go with her. 

Some of my earliest memories are of being a very small child being left to crawl around the laundrette with its hot pipes, large electric washers and bottles of deadly detergents. Simpler times!

Although I was a very young child, it’s the smells I perhaps remember the most. An odd mix of over-fragranced washing powder, the potent aroma of dry cleaning solvent (which is called Tetrachloroethylene and was first synthesised by Michael Faraday in 1821 – for all you fact fans) and an odd, unquantifiable 'smell' of electrically charged static. The smell you associate with electricity and heat. Any of these smells can now illicit a Proustian memory and it is perhaps why, dare I say, it I find laundrettes a little bit erotic. 

Okay - I can sense some of you already thinking of alerting the authorities - but I’ve spoken to a few people who agree with me. As with many things in this area, it is difficult to articulate why some people should find laundrettes erotic but perhaps it’s the warmth and comfort, the constant rhythm of the machines or the certain intimacy that comes from being so close to a stranger’s underwear. 

During the mid-1980s, when laundrettes were at their peak, the laundrette’s 'sexiness' reached its height, featuring in two cultural moments that have come to define much about the era. Both released in 1985 the movie My Beautiful Laundrette and a Levis 501 advert bunged the two unlikely subjects of sex and laundrettes into the machine and set it on a 'HOT CYCLE'. 

My Beautiful Laundrette was a taboo busting film that featured not only gay but also inter-racial sexual relationships in a way rarely seen up until that point, all set against the backdrop of a South London laundrette. Omar, an entrepreneurial Pakistani, is beaten up by a gang of right wing thugs but recognises one of them, Johnny (played by Daniel Day Lewis) as a childhood friend and former lover. In an attempt to revive their romantic relationship and to help him to redeem himself, Omar persuades Johnny to help him fix up a tatty laundrette that he has taken on.

The scene where Johnny and Omar make love in the back room of the laundrette was quite a revelation at the time and the film did no harm in reviving the laundrette’s somewhat down-at-heel image at this time. 

At around the same time their image gained a further boost with the release of the now famous Levi's 501 laundrette advert. By 1985 sales of Levi's in the key youth market had stagnated and their jeans and their image were considered to be a bit naff.  Levi's employed the ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty to make their 501 jeans more appealing to a younger market.

Set in 1950s USA, the ad starts with the opening bars of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ by Marvin Gaye. The model Nick Kamen walks into a laundrette, he empties a bag of pumice stones into a washer,  strips down to his boxer shorts, puts his 501s into the washer and casually sits down to wait for them to (stone)wash – much to the delight of the attractive female customers in the laundrette. The ad certainly did its job and sales of 501s rose by 800% during the campaign. So successful was it that Levi's had to pull the ad because they couldn't make enough jeans fast enough to feed the demand. Laundrettes had never been sexier. 

Around this same time I was a young man leaving home for the first time and living in a grotty bedsit that didn't have hot running water, never mind a washing machine, so trips to the laundrette were mandatory. Perhaps the Levi's ad had seduced me too and was happy to visit the laundrette in the naïve hope that it would be a good place to meet attractive girls.

In an age before the distraction of smart phones I spent many an hour sat in a laundrette mindlessly watching my washing go round and round, in the vain hope a nice girl would come in with her sexy smalls and strike up a conversation. 

As the main clientele were nanas and smelly students  — and not fit girls —  this notion soon went out the window. I also discovered that for just a couple of quid you could drop your dirty washing off with the little old lady out the back and have a service wash done overnight, with your clean clothes handed back all nicely folded, so I soon sacked off sitting around in laundrettes. I must also add that, not being made of male model material myself, I was never tempted to emulate Nick Kamen and strip off to my boxer shorts — I don’t think it would have gone down quite the same in Eccles. 

As the 80s wore on more and more people were able to afford washing machines and driers in their own homes, and laundrettes went into decline. The machines themselves, if maintained properly, were built to industrial standards and could go on forever. Laundrette owners often saw little or no reason to update their shops so many laundrette started to take on an unintended retro charm, with some having hardly changed since the 1960s. 

Laundrettes, with their banks of huge washers and driers in beiges, greens and oranges, wood panelling on the walls, sparkling bright lino on the floors and a row of the obligatory plastic chairs, were effortlessly cool. They would often have great signage outside in bold and jolly typefaces with names like ‘LAUNDERAMA’ or ‘LAUNDROMAT’, lights burning brightly inside until late into the night. 

Many such laundrettes have clung on with a certain faded glory well into this century. Numbers may have dwindled, but one of the laundrette's unlikely saviours is the ongoing popularity of the duvet. It’s impossible to wash a duvet in most domestic machines so the only place that can accommodate a big bulky duvet is your local laundrette. It may be the only time most of you use one nowadays, but I bet after reading this you'll notice a lot more of them around and about.

They're still out there; all warm and snug, with the comforting whirr of the machines allowing your mind to wander off with the heady smell of over perfumed washing powder, fabric conditioner and warm fibres filling the air.   

Long live the Laundrette.

See those Burlington washing powder boxes here

Read more of Eddy's writing in The Modernist Magazine

Photos by Adam Hindmarch.