The rise, fall and rise of the laundrette
PUBLISHED: 14:26 15 May 2018
Paul Barnes muses about the changing times of the laundrette.
I read somewhere that the launderette is making a comeback. Not knowing that it had actually been away came as a bit of surprise to me. But thinking about it I realised that I hadn’t seen one in recent years, which isn’t saying a lot bearing in mind that I don’t go out so much as I used to. It’s not that launderettes had completely vanished like the dodo or the passenger pigeon; they’d simply retreated in the face of the onward march of the domestic washing machine.
Launderettes came in about 1949 and soon there were hundreds of the things, though neither my mum nor her mum who lived over the road used one, not at the beginning anyway. The sound of Monday in their houses was the sloshing of the dolly tub, the clatter of the mangle and the flap of sheets on the washing line. They didn’t mind neighbours seeing clean clothes wagging in the breeze, but they drew the line at anybody seeing the dirty stuff.
I rescued mum’s old mangle and its remains sit under cover in our garden. Its fat rollers perished years ago. Hospitals used to run regular “mangle clinics” to deal with children whose fingers were crushed in them.
There was a bit of a stigma attached to the early launderettes. “Gossip shops for lazy people,” sneered some who believed in the moral superiority attached to doing the laundry the hard way. For others, moral superiority didn’t come into it; social superiority was the thing. Nobody could see the contents of their shirt and pants drawers because they sent them away in creaking baskets to the laundry. Laundry vans were as familiar as milk floats, bread vans and chimney sweeps’ bikes.
My first encounter with a launderette came in 1960 when I moved to start a job in London. Customers, mostly women, were kind to a beginner. I soon got the hang of it and was able to be kind to other beginners, especially girls. It was a good way to meet. Chatting while our clothes tumbled and spun we could learn lots about each other. We were members of the same tribe, far from home, living in bedsits or sharing crowded flats.
One girl was Welsh, dark-haired and dark-eyed. We went out with one another for weeks. We knew the relationship was moving into a more profound and serious phase after we began sharing the same machine. It was cheaper too.
Years later, we met by chance on a flight to Kuwait. I was with a film crew, she was with her husband and two children. We reminisced, carefully and briefly. Then the aeroplane jolted as it encountered an air pocket causing the lovely stewardess to lurch and spill a can of Coca Cola into my lap and over my brand new banana-coloured jeans. C’est la vie, I thought. And then I got to wondering if they had launderettes in Kuwait.
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