Why are "French laundry" and "Chinese laundry" things?
March 24, 2012 1:56 PM   Subscribe

What's so special about French and Chinese laundries?

People talk about "French laundry" and "Chinese laundry" as if they're somehow special. Do the French or the Chinese wash clothes in some special way? Google is being useless and telling me about restaurants and shoes.
posted by madcaptenor to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
PBS had a series called The Chinese Experience in America which explained that the term "French Laundry" was code for non-Chinese owned laundry during the 1800s. However I can't find any exact information, I'm only going by what I remember watching.
posted by cazoo at 2:13 PM on March 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Wikipedia article is pretty accurate to what I learned about the French laundries of New York. Although there certainly may have been some "We're not Chinese!" energy around billing yourself as a French laundry, because people are shits, there were some specific services that French laundries offered, like the hand-finishing with starch mentioned in the Wiki, and also specific techniques of washing lace, which was A Big Deal in the early 20th century.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:25 PM on March 24, 2012

It's a very common thing for immigrant communities to concentrate in a certain trade - like Gujarati motel owners now, or cities where most of the cab drivers are Sudanese or Somali, or my great-grandfather who was a Russian Jew and dealt in used clothes in New York. In the 19th century, Chinese laundries, especially on the US west coast, were just the same. As cazoo says, French Laundry was basically a racist code for white-run, rather than Chinese, and I suppose also plays on the association of the French with high fashion.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 2:27 PM on March 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

In interesting instance of the racially charged climate around California laundries is the 1886 case Yick Wo v. Hopkins, where the Supreme Court struck down a city ordinance in San Francisco that was race-blind on its face but in practice was implemented in a discriminatory way against Chinese laundries.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 2:31 PM on March 24, 2012

France had an international reputation for its laundering technology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many UK aristocrats sent their laundry to the blanchisseuses of Paris; there was a widespread rumor that the Nehru family did the same from India, though apparently that wasn't actually true.

Laundry wasn't simple in the 19th and early 20th century; lots of clothes were made out of mixes of fabric that required different attention (cotton lawn dresses edged with handmade lace, for example). Buttons often needed to be removed before laundering and then re-sewn on. Middle-class and above people sent their laundry out not just because they were lazy, but because it was really time-consuming work.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:41 PM on March 24, 2012

I don't think it's as simple as that geographically-limited Wikipedia article suggests. While there may have been racism involved, underpinned by competitive pressures, a review of 19th century Google Books shows that the term was used quite widely, particularly around the 1880s, and as far "east" as London (e.g. Oscar Wilde).

The associations are primarily exacting ("fine") cleaning resulting in spotless or even especially white clothing. There are references to the "renowned" soaps of France and Germany. The French word for "laundry" blanchisserie reinforces this; it basically means "whitening shop". French laundries were preferred by professionals such as attorneys and bankers and any upper-class women with lacy clothing, particularly suggestive of undergarments, which could easily be damaged in lesser-quality laundries.

It's also clear from many such references that "Chinese laundry" was widely seen as code for "inexpensive". There are strong class issues at play here. It also seems that working in a French laundry was considered acceptable, even honorable work for an unmarried woman, but this may simply have been a way of distinguishing white-run laundries from Chinese or "coloured" laundries.
posted by dhartung at 3:01 PM on March 24, 2012

I don't think it's as simple as that geographically-limited Wikipedia article suggests.

Which Wikipedia article? The one I linked to talked about the specific services French laundries provided, including the hand-finishing (though it didn't mention the lace bit, special tailoring services like removal of buttons, etc.) and doesn't talk about Chinese laundries. The one strangely stunted trees linked to about the Yick Wo case doesn't talk about French laundries at all, just says that the San Francisco statute was applied unequally and that enforcement was deemed to be biased against Yick Wo because of his race.

Was there some other comment that's been deleted? Because I am confused.

In New York, most of the establishments that billed themselves as "Chinese laundries" were machine laundries marketing themselves on the basis of cost and speed; most of the establishments that billed themselves as "French laundries" were hand laundries (or hand-finishing laundries) marketing themselves on the basis of quality and special services for high-end goods. And sure, maybe there was racism in the mix, but the two kinds of establishments provided different services.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:18 PM on March 24, 2012

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