Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Laundry Problem

The Laundry Problem

A Yearning for the Good Old Days of the Humble Washerwoman 

(By Stephen Leacock circa 1913)

     A LONG time ago, thirty of forty years ago, there use to exist a humble being called a Washerwoman. It was her simple function to appear at intervals with a huge basket, carry away soiled clothes, and bring them back as snow-white linen.

     The washerwoman is gone now. Her place is taken by the Amalgamated Laundry Company. She is gone but I want her back.
     The washerwoman, in fact and in fiction, was supposed to represent the bottom end of everything. She could just manage to exist. She was the last word. Now the Amalgamated Laundry Company uses hydro-electric power, has an office like a bank, and delivers its goods out of a huge hearse driven by a chauffeur in livery. But I want that humble woman back.
     In the old days any woman deserted and abandoned in the world took in washing. When all else failed there was at least that. Any woman who wanted to show her independent spirit and force of character threatened to take in washing. It was the last resort of a noble mind....
Well, so much for being original. Here I was being all smug that I was coping so well with being an invisible middle-aged has-been rocket scientist and I find out my strategy is so old it was mocked by a famous humorist a century ago.

Last December I installed my washer and dryer in the laundry room I built out of that 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion I bought for $900. Then in January I actually started to take in washing. 

It was just a logical step because my friend's old laundry closed and he had to go to the Amalgamated Laundry Company. He found the prices exorbitant. I said I would do his laundry every two weeks. I use it as a mechanism to cover the cost of trips to town to buy groceries. I pick up laundry on Tuesday and get the weekly specials at the grocery store on the way home. Then the specials change on Wednesday while I'm doing the laundry. I drop off the clothes on Thursday and get another week's grocery specials on the way home. I only have to go to town every two weeks with this system, but I never miss a buy-one-get-one-free on romaine lettuce. (My fancy refrigerator can keep romaine lettuce fresh for over two weeks. I recommend a SubZero for any serious hermit.)

The other day after I dropped off laundry I picked up this book from a shelf. It's by my friend's great-grandfather. I found "The Laundry Problem." It seemed relevant in an almost spooky way. I took pictures of it with my iPhone and transcribed it.

Here's some more of the story:

     Where the poor washerwoman was hopelessly simple was that she never destroyed or injured the shirt. She never even thought to bite a piece out with her teeth. When she brought it back it looked softer and better than ever. It never occurred to her to tear out one of the sleeves. If she broke a button in washing, she humbly sewed it on again.
     When she ironed the shirt it never occurred to the simple soul to burn a brown mark right across it. The woman lacked imagination. In other words, modern industrialism was in its infancy.
     I have never witnessed at first hand the processes of a modern incorporated laundry company using up-to-date machinery. But I can easily construct in my imagination a vision of what is done when a package of washing is received. The shirts are first sorted out and taken to an expert who rapidly sprinkles them with sulfuric acid.
     Then they go to the coloring room where they are dipped in a solution of yellow stain. From this they pass to the machine-gun room where holes are shot in them and from there by an automatic carrier to the hydraulic tearing room where the sleeves are torn out. After that they are squeezed absolutely flat under enormous pressure which puts them into such a shape that the buttons can all be ripped up at a single scrape by an expert button ripper.
     The last process is altogether handwork and accounts, I am informed, for the heavy cost. A good button-ripper with an expert knowledge of the breaking strain of material, easily earns fifty dollars a day. But the work is very exacting, as not a single button is expected to escape his eye.
I would like to aspire to the high rate of fifty dollars a day, but alas, it's man's work. Plus I could never stand the smell of a commercial laundry. I only use unscented detergent. I am highly sensitive to smells. My friend's clothes were previously washed in some product that should be marketed as chemical warfare. I've washed these clothes every two weeks for a solid year and they STILL smell like that other detergent. I kid you not. What the hell is in that stuff? I am just a humble washerwoman though, so I suck it up and do the work.

More of "The Laundry Problem":
     Had the poor washerwoman kept a machine-gun and a little dynamite, she could have  made a fortune. But she didn't know it. In the old days a washerwoman washed a shirt for ten-twelfths of a cent—or ten cents a dozen pieces. The best laundries, those which deny all admission to their offices and send back their laundry under an armed guard, now charge one dollar to wash a shirt, with a special rate of twelve dollars a dozen.
     On the same scale the washerwoman's wages would be multiplied by a hundred and twenty. She really represented in value an income of fifty dollars a year. Had it been known, she could have been incorporated and dividends picked off her like huckleberries.
     Now that I think of it, she was worth even more than that. With the modern laundry a shirt may be worn twice, for one day each time. After that it is blown up. And it costs four dollars to buy a new one. In the old days a shirt lasted till a man outgrew it. As a man approached middle life he found, with a certain satisfaction, that he had outgrown his shirt. He had to spend seventy-five cents on a new one, and that one lasted till he was buried in it.
"she could have been incorporated and dividends picked off her like huckleberries." That's solid gold writing right there.

I wonder if he's exaggerating these prices? Am I charging a comparable fee to 100 years ago? The text says the humble washerwoman was from 40 years before 1913, but the inflation calculators online don't go back farther than 100 years. Here's the best I could do:

Humble washerwoman: 
12 shirts for a dime in 1913 = 12 shirts for $2.36 in 2013

Amalgamated Laundry:
$1.00 per shirt in 1913 equals $23.59 per shirt in 2013

New shirt for $4.00 in 1913 buys $94.36 shirt in 2013

Yeah, I think he was exaggerating how much the washerwoman charged. Nobody is THAT humble.

"In the old days a shirt lasted till a man outgrew it. As a man approached middle life he found, with a certain satisfaction, that he had outgrown his shirt." This brings me to the crafty part of today's blog. Stephen Leacock's descendant found he has outgrown his shirt.

A Pillow from a Shirt:

I pulled up the Walmart web site and found they sell 14" and 16" square pillow forms. I measured across the chest of the shirt and found 14" would fit. Next time I went to town I picked up three 14" square pillow forms for about $6 each.
First turn the shirt inside out, buttoned up.
Get out the sewing machine and sew a 14" square on the shirt.
Cut it out.
Undo the buttons and turn the square right side out.
Put the pillow inside and button it back up.
Enjoy adorable pillow.
I made another one the same way.
I made a sleeve for my reading glasses I keep by my chair.
I tried to make a sleeve for my iPad but stopped halfway
through because it was too dorky even for me.
Altogether I made three pillows and three cases for reading
glasses. I keep a pair every place I might need to see
something up close.
The last shirt I cut the front and back out first and pinned the pieces together to match the plaids. This actually works better because there's these little pleats in the back that make it kind of weird in the corners. The last one is going back to my laundry client because it will look good on his couch. The other two work in my red chairs as lumbar support.

The end of the story:
....I felt it was hopeless to go on. My only chance for the future is that I may get to know some beautiful rich woman and perhaps her husband will run away and leave her weeping and penniless and drinking gin, and then I will appear in the doorway and will say, "Dry your tears, dear, dear friend; there is prosperity for you yet; you shall wash my shirt."

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