(Edinburgh women negotiate the gradients of the old town, bringing home their washing from the steamie)

As I walk about Edinburgh, I often find myself thinking about residents and visitors of the past, moving about the city. A while ago, such thoughts gave rise to the Jane Gaugain walk I wrote for Twist Collective. These days, pottering about my locale, I find that my path often crosses with those taken by the Newhaven fishwives, on their way to town to sell their wares; in Leith, I think about Betty Mouat, and, at the East end of Princes Street, Anna Laetitia Barbauld always springs to mind. Today I managed a good long walk and found myself thinking about the distances women must have have traveled on foot, pushing prams, trolleys, and make-shift carts, to get their washing to and from the steamie.

The cleaning and drying of clothes was a massive problem for those living in nineteenth-century Scottish tenements, many of which did not have a clean running water supply or access to a drying green. By the late 1800s, Edinburgh and Glasgow followed the example of London and Liverpool, and introduced public wash-houses, known North of the Border as steamies. Often attached to swimming baths, and publicly managed by the council, steamies were used by women all over Scotland’s cities.

Several of my neighbours have told me about how they used to frequent the Bonnington Road steamie.


(women at the Bonnington steamie, 1973)

There was a steamie in Stockbridge (attached to what is now Glenogle Swimming Pool), another in Portobello, and according to this 1960s timetable, seven further Edinburgh steamies – making a total of ten city-wide.

During the 60s and 70s, the rise of the domestic washing machine and the advent of the commercial laundrette spelt the end of the communal, publicly-run, steamie.


(Portobello women sign a petition, protesting against the closure of their steamie)

But, in new automated form, the council-managed steamies seem to have lingered on in Edinburgh until the early 80s.


(women protest in 1981 against the closure of the steamies: “Don’t let the Tories make the steamies redundant too!”)

Though I’m sure most of us relish the convenience of the domestic washing machine, communal steamies played an important role in the lives of many women in Edinburgh and Glasgow (for example, see the comments of these women, recorded in 1971, about the closure of a steamie in Edinburgh – does anyone know which one it is?). Following their demise, steamies quickly became the focus of an affectionate nostalgia that’s best exemplified by Tony Roper’s immensely popular play The Steamie (the 1988 TV production is available in full here on the STV player).

Did any of you use one of the steamies in Edinburgh or Glasgow? Did equivalent public laundry / wash-house facilities exist in US cities?

110 thoughts on “steamies

  1. I’ve done a history of Edinburgh’s public washhouses recently published in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, and am doing a talk for Doors Open Day. The remains of Abbeymount have recently been demolished and McLeod Street is also due to go as part of a redevelopment scheme. This leaves Portobello, in use as a community centre, and Union Street, base for Edinburgh Printmakers. They are due to move to Fountainbridge next year but is open for the 2014 Doors Open Day.

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  2. I grew up in Edinburgh in the sixties and seventies, and accompanied my Mum every week to either the Fountainbridge, or McLeod St Steamies.
    I have very happy memories of both, my Gran, Auntie and family friends would all go on the same day, it was a real social get together.
    My mum would trek to the Steamie , washing strapped into my old buggy, with me in tow, if we went to Fountainbridge I would quite often be deposited in the public library and left there on my own to amuse myself amongst the books, not surprisingly, I’m now an avid book reader.
    It was exclusively women who used it, I have no memory of ever seeing a man there doing the washing, the only man would be the caretaker.
    I always remember being terrified of the drying rails in McLeod St, these were metal fronted very very hot heating rails which rolled out onto the floor to have the washing hung on, and then pushed back into the wall. I had an abiding fear of being trapped in them !.
    It was a sad day when the last steamie closed.

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  3. I am researching the history of Steamies for a project at University and have found these blogs very interesting. However, does no one in America know what people did before the invention of the electric washing machine?

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  4. Hi would you mind stating which blog platform you’re working with? I’m planning to start my own blog in the near future but
    I’m having a tough time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique.
    P.S Apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!

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  5. I can remember being taken to Manor Place Baths off the Walworth Road in London, It looked just the same as those in your pictures. The baths and wash house were closed in the ’70’s, the big drying cupboards were free but the tumble dryers had to be paid for, they also had the biggest mangles I had ever seen. In the winter we looked forward to going just to get warm. The building is now listed. D

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  6. Thanks for this. I am doing an article (and probably talk) at the moment on the public washhouses of Edinburgh. There were originally thirteen, the first opeing in 1892. Sadly many were demolished after they closed – they seem to have been forgotten and unloved – and only four remain in any form (in different uses – one is a car showroom! ). The best survival is 23 Union Street which is used by Edinburgh Printmakers, and was listed as being of architectural/historic interest last year.
    The last three washhouses closed in 1982. I think ‘Steamie’ is Glaswegian – they were mostly called washhouses in Edinburgh.

    Regards

    steven

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  7. I grew up in London in the 1950s. We had a local Public Baths with facilities for bathing and doing washing; also two swimming baths. My mother took our laundry to the Baths twice a week. When my sister and I were younger she fired up a copper in the kitchen and did her wash at home, hanging it on the line in the garden. Once we were both in school she went to the baths. She took to washing in an old pram. The photos brought back memories. I would sometimes meet her at the baths in school holidays and I remember the steam and the smell of soap. There was also a lot of socialising and joking going on. The washing was done in deep sinks and then the clothes dried in the large dryers that pushed into the wall. Mum would be home by the time we came home for dinner (lunch) from school. In the afternoon she did all the ironing. The big wash was on Monday as she did sheets then – the beds were changed on Sunday. Thursday was a lighter load.

    When I was a teenager I began to use the baths for bathing. It cost tuppence to take a bath in huge bath tubs with as much hot water as you wanted. Such luxury as we did not have a bathroom at home and just an outside toilet. I also went swimming at a child and taught myself to swim using a book from the library! Thanks for the memories!

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  8. In the northeast USA, many tenements had a tiny backyard featuring a smelly privy. I believe this was why laundry was done indoors on the stove. Later, when people had bathtubs, it could be done in the tub. Old city tenements and the “triple deckers” of northeastern mill towns have (usually) a small back porch or large stair landing which provides a place to hang out the laundry in dry weather. Of course there were private laundry services (often run by immigrants) for those who could afford them. My rural grandmother had a double laundry sink in a damp, cold scullery. The 10 gallon hot water tank ran off the coal stove. Prior to the tank, she had a copper tank for the stove top which I still have. Later, she had an electric washer with a hose to drain it into the sink and a wringer attachment. My mother still used this when I was a child. Laundry drying on the porch or by the kitchen door is a rural New England custom which disgusts the affluent who vacation in those areas. I had never heard of “steamies”. Thanks for the lovely article and pictures!

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    1. Further research reveals that in New York City, at least, the tenement yards were rented by businesses. Apparently the apartment dwellers could use the privy and water tap, but not the rest of the yard.

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  9. I was brought up in Glasgow in the 50s in a room and kitchen with no bathroom, although we were fortunate in having an inside toilet. My mum took the washing every Tuesday to the local Steamie and continued to use this excellent washing and drying facility well into the 70s when public wash-houses were beginning to close all over the city as more and more families were able to afford domestic washing machines. We also used the public baths – big deep baths you could almost swim in, and my father continued to use them long after we had moved to a high-rise flat with a bathroom in the mid 70s. He could splash about and not worry about making the floor wet. You could also hire towels so no wet towels hanging around the bathroom. The public wash-houses were excellent for families living in the tenements and other tight spaces. I have very happy memories of the sociable times there, which were invaluable for women who, in those days, did not go out to work. There was also great cameraderie amongst the staff and customers. Happy days indeed !

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  10. What a fascinating account. I don’t know what sort of provision there was in the big cities in England as I grew up in the country where washing was done by hand with the help of a boiler and wringer, then hung in the garden before we all had washing machines. Have you read The Laundress by Emile Zola – all you need to know about Paris laundries in the 19th c

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  11. I (we all) learn so much from you on such a variety of subjects, some of them unexpected, and always interesting. You remain a teacher, just in a slightly different form.
    Received my wonderful package from Lerwick: beautiful wools in lovely, soft shades and your delightful sheepy patterns. I’m so very pleased and look forward to two striking projects. Thank you, Kate!

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  12. One of my first apartments when I finished college was in the Little Italy section of New York City in the early ’70’s. At that time there were green grocers, bread makers, a cheese store, a small hardware store, a candy store -everything was separate, and a small launderette where all the Italian wives would meet every morning to do their daily washing. I did not do daily washing, but I did learn a lot about Italian culture, cooking, and most importantly how to fold fitted sheets, which I can do perfectly to this day. I also learned all the secrets passed down through many years of Italian women about how to get clothes really clean. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

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  13. I brought this topic to the morning break at work after reading your posts over breakfast – lots of memories of wash days in the sixties and seventies,Also about the sheer amount of time doing laundry took up. I always felt the automatic washing machine must be one of the biggest factors in freeing up women to do other things – not the least of which would be making money in their own right. The camaraderie looked wonderful though…I suppose that’s what ‘The Steamie’ celebrates.
    Kate, where are the photos from? I am a librarian and always want to know sources!
    Thanks as always for your wonderful posts

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  14. I’d never thought of this before – thanks for the great post, it makes fascinating reading.
    I remember my grandmother in Turkey had an old washer with ringers across the top, and I always worried about getting my fingers stuck…

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  15. I loved the black and white pictures and the wonderful blog. I used the tin tubs and woodeen wash board, we had a large iron pot to heat wash water and then we boiled the white clothing and used a bluing in the rinse water, and the laundry was hung up to dry in the sun , taken in if it was cloudy and dried inside the house was always damp in the winter.thank you Kate for a peek into the past.I wish the best and hope you are feeling better.you have open a wonderful door to your world ,that i still wish to visit.I pray for you and your and all that ill includingJulle.always thanks.

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  16. When I was a child in the 1950s and 1960s, for a few years, we did not have an automatic washing machine. I recall waking up many mornings (Monday in particular) crying because my mother was not at home although my dad was home. Mom had already been to the washateria to do the laundry on wringer-type washers, and was out hanging the laundry on the clothesline. It was necessary to get the washing done early so that the clothes would be dry before 11:00 a.m. because the sand started to blow every day between 11:00 and noon where we lived in New Mexico.

    As a young woman married to a member of the military, our family was stationed for a couple of years in Turkey. We had moved our automatic washing machine with us, but, because the power cycles differed from what the machine required, it did not work properly. Many, many times I did laundry in the bath tub. And yes, hot water was a luxury. We had hot water five mornings each week until about 8:30 or 9:00 o’clock. We were much more fortunate than people living elsewhere in the city who had little if any hot water except what they could heat on the range top.

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  17. Kate
    I loved your Steamie post and shared the photos with my mother and aunt. My aunt had just told me that the iphone was reported to be the greatest invention of all time and I responded a link to your post about the steamie.
    .
    My mother who is 80 this year replied “I enjoyed the pictures of the Steamie. Joan (.. her sister …) and I went there when we lived in Bridgeton. Everyone thought we were with the Gypsies at the Fair as we did not know how to use the equipment.”

    Just wanted to thank you for the great post.
    Kate

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  18. Steamie culture is reminding me of the public bath or hammam culture in Morocco. Yes you go there to get a nice scrub down and bathe, but also to chit chat, find out neighborhood news, and check out new people. Wish we did more communally!

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  19. In Portugal the public laundries still exist and are used, by people who lack other laundry facilities but also some who believe this is the best way to wash. I suspect the latter may be the case in this video from a fisher(wo!)men’s neighbourhood in the outskirts of Porto, 2nd largest city of the country.

    I remember reading an interview with a woman who kept on using the public laundry because she couldn’t stand the idea of the dirty laundry spinning for hours in the same dirty water. Not really sure what the difference is here, but that was her view.

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    1. When I read Francesca’s comment above, the comment of the woman I referred to makes sense. I guess the Portuguese lavatórios work the same way as the Italian do, thus with the water flowing through the basins.

      Thanks Karen and all the contributors to this interesting story, so timely as today is International Women’s Day!

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      1. O yes, I lived in the north of Portugal ( late 80´s and early 90´s) I was so impressed with the lavatorios then.
        There was allways running clean water into it, coming frome a natural fonte. And the woman says the same, a washing machine cannot do better! I like to see it!!! Now there changes a lot (still there are some) but because the building of new roads, etc. a lot of natural sources dissapear…

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  20. I’m always impressed (and humbled!) by how strong women had to be in the past. In a Scottish book I read, it mentioned how the wives of fishermen would have to walk the fish for miles to an inland town in order to sell it. Also, the lives of the American pioneer women fascinate me in the same way. Crazy!

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  21. I have a slight obsession with laundry. My first Saturday job, when I was 14 ,was in a bagwash shop. Dirty laundry was brought to the shop in a strong cotton sack, marked with the house number and first three letters of the address (we were 22 EVE). The bags were collected, washed in a commercial laundry, and delivered back to the shop either “ready-dry” or damp, squashed back in the cotton sack. One woman in particular used to moan at me when it was too dry, because it made ironing all but impossible – then she’d relent and give me 6d. because it was not my fault. For those who could afford it, there was a bespoke laundry service, used mostly for large items like sheets, which were returned pressed and wrapped beautifully in brown paper and string. Lots of single men used to bring their laundry in too. I imagined them living in lodgings or homes for merchant seamen. There were wash-houses too, mysterious places reserved exclusively for women, noisy and steamy with tall drying cupboards draped with damp sheets. I was desperate to find out what was going on in there, but was shuffled out whenever I managed to sneak in. But what about those prams and pushchairs! Essential transport. My mum still has hers on the back balcony, a low loader about 60 years old!

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  22. Love these little historical posts! I grew up in Baltimore, on the east coast of the US, where a local philanthropist endowed both a public art museum and a series free public baths with basement laundry facilities! As in Philadelphia, these were charitable ventures run by a “Baths Commission” that eventually passed into municipal control. (In 1894, it cost 2.5 cents for an hour of laundry privileges). Baltimore had a half-dozen public baths/laundries, some segregated by gender or race, some with attached playgrounds to keep children busy while their mothers did the laundry. The baths were closed by 1960, but when I was growing up, my next door neighbor (ninety if she was a day), still fondly remembered going to Public Bath #5 and toting the week’s laundry along with her.

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  23. Isn’t the the Union Street steamie now the home of Edinburgh Printmakers studio?

    There are still remnants of a previous life on show – similar to your fourth photograph.

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  24. what amazing comments and snippets of history. A brilliantly evocative blog that’s really got the memories pouring out. Thanks so much, Anna PS hope you feel more in kilter soon.

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  25. I remeber my mother’s using the steamie in Glasgow Green, next to Templeton’s carpet factory – usually on a Tuesday, for that day was ‘her turn for the backcourt’ – to hang out her washing. If it rained on a Tuesday, she went to the steamie another day and hung out the washing on the Green, where locals have been entitled to dry washing since the Middle Ages. And in the 1980s, I came across a black and white photograph taken by George Oliver:’ Washing on Glasgow Green 1948′ in a book: ‘Noise nd Smoky Breath’ It actually shows my mother, sitting waiting for the washing to dry, with myself and young sister playing on the grass……

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  26. I remember going to the Fountainbridge steamie in 1974 as an impoverished student! They were undoubtedly great institutions but hauling washing there and back got the better of us and we started using a launderette. The play is reasonably regularly revived and always plays before packed audiences; they were a very important part of our social history.

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  27. Kate!

    I thought you post was going to be about hotdogs!! Here they call steamed hotdog wieners in steamed buns “steamies” ! :~}

    I enjoyed reading about your steamies! Ver interesting…

    donna

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  28. So interesting! I’ve never heard of a steamie but it’s fascinating to learn. I have memories of the weekly trip to the laundromat (my family moved every year or so in the US and we didn’t buy a washing machine till I was in high school), but they weren’t places of good smells or bonhomie. The smell I remember is that of clothes dried at a too-high temperature–burnt synthetics. But what really piqued my interest in your post was the women’s statements that the clothes got cleaner at the steamie than with a coin-operated washer. I’ve been researching off and on how to get whites white, as even the “sanitary” cycle on my washer doesn’t do it. I’m thinking it’s got to be soap flakes, very hot water, a scrub board. . . and elbow grease.

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  29. Kate, I love what you are doing. My friend turned me on to your blog shortly after I was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer and a fairly poor prognosis. It has also really changed my life. I have taken up knitting and yoga, and I am treasuring my time with family and friends. Oh, and I am 35 years old.

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  30. I lived round the corner from the wash house in Murdoch Terrace Edinburgh and can remember the women going with their old prams filled with clothes. I think steamie is a
    Glasgow expression. Ednburgh people just called it the wash house.

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  31. The Womens’ Library in London is built on the site of a public washhouse. A friend of mine used the words of the minutes of the meetings about it to make a site specific installation piece of drawing. Complaints that instead of spending a penny on the mangle the women were taking washing home to drycome to mind!

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  32. I’ve noticed near universities coin-operated laundries which also offer beer, snacks, and televisions. Too bad those didn’t exist in my day! Also, in small towns in Texas, Sunday afternoons at the laundromats are busy and quite social. Where I live, it’s ranch hands, but in some areas it’s oil field workers. Most anyone with permanent living arrangements has their own washer and dryer. While visiting New York, I enjoyed being able to drop off a huge bag of clothes at a laundry then pick up clean clothes a couple of hours later for just a few dollars.

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  33. i leave in Canada and we never had anything like a steamie, but I vividly remember my grandmother’s gas powered washing machine. Due to the fumes it spewed and loud noise the motor made she could only use it on the side porch when the weather permitted. It was so loud when she was washing if you wanted to tell her something you had to go right up to her and shout! She loved the thing anyway because her other option was washing the clothes by hand in a big tub with a washboard. The farm in rural Quebec did not have electricity until sometime in the seventies.

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  34. I remember walking past the steamie in Causewayside on the way to school (there was a passage down the side of it), but I don’t remember it it was open and functioning. I think it became an antique shop, but I think it’s now been pulled down and flats built on the site.

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  35. In the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s all we heard from the UK was “mod London,” the Beatles, Mary Quant, Jean Muir, Vidal Sassoon. How different it was elsewhere in the UK, and how little we knew of those places. This was fascinating!

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  36. As a child I loved a visit to the Lauderette. My sister and I used to climb on top of a platform, above the machines and run about, believe it or not. It was the site of many a good game. Then again as a student I found them reassuring places to be. There’s that lovely, warm, dry smell, the effect of the tumbledyers and all that clean laundry, and it was a chance to catch up on some reading. In Jamaica, a visit to the lauderette was a welcome chance to view satellite TV, and in Harlem, it was always a battle to find a free machine. This is turning into Launderette’s I’ve visited around the word…Thanks Kate, for the evocative piece about Steamies, that jogged this memory

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  37. A fantastic post as usual, and so evocative as I spent the first seven years of my life living in a room and kitchen off Leith Walk. Bathing was done in a tin bath in front of the fire, the water having been heated in pans on the cooker. The bath was stored in the coal cellar. The shared toilet was outside on the landing.
    I remember visiting a steamie!! It was probably the Union Street one, now the Printmakers Studio. My mother claims never to have visited it, but used the kitchen sink for smalls and the Launderette round the corner for bigger washing. This was pre 1965. I can only imagine I was on an expedition, chumming someone-else and their mother.

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  38. Hi Kate, I live in Manziana, a town north of Rome in Italy and the public wash-sheds (lavatoio) still exist. My town has 2 (as far as I know) which are maintained but not filled with water. About 5 minutes walk from me is Quadroni which is a fraction (frazioni) of Manziana and their wash-shed is still running with the list of days when it is cleaned out. These are 2 large rectangular pools of water with a constant supply fresh spring water running in one end and then flowing to the second pool and draining out. I know that someone still uses this wash house as often when I have taken a walk past one of the pools is cloudy and there is the scent of some kind of washing detergent. I really love the idea of these wash-sheds and often play a game with myself to spot them whenever I am anywhere, i have no idea how old they are and if some of them are as old as the towns but I doubt that they are very different in design from what women were using in Roman days, maybe even Etruscan days. It is really beautiful, I think, to have this thread with the lives and works of women from the past. I really enjoy your blog, by the way, although I am just a beginner knitter! And your Bruce makes me miss having a faithful four legged friend beside me. Best wishes, Francesca

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  39. Really interesting, we don’t know we are born these days. I remember the television programme when it was on. I know this isn’t about laundry, but I grew up in Bury, Lancashire, born in 1961, and remember going for swimming lessons to the municipal baths and they had what were called “slipper baths”, which was a large room full of baths, with divides where people who weren’t fortunate/affluent enough to have baths at home could go and use the facilities. I think the baths were knocked down in the 1970’s. Not that long ago really, but very different times. Best wishes Helen

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  40. Anyone who has ever carried a load of wet washing any distance will give the lie to the idea women are physically fragile creatures!
    I love your social history posts:my father remembered clambering around the steamie roof as a boy, while his mother worked inside…no adventure playgrounds in Stirling then, and the steamie roof was lovely and warm in winter!

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  41. A fascinating post and wonderful photographs. Despite all the hard physical labour of running a home in earlier times, those women look radiant.

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  42. I love your historical posts Kate, this one is especially thought provoking, I will be asking my mum her recollections of washing in Wartime Manchester when I see her….sometimes you forget how much the ‘necessities’ of modern life actually destroy our relationships with the people around us.

    Fleur xx

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  43. When I was a child in the 50s, my granny lived in Springwell Place (off Dalry Rd). The flat was a room and kitchen plus lavatory. She called the kitchen sink ‘the well’ and had a strip down wash there every day. The aunt who lived with her went to Dalry Baths to have a bath but she was modern and glamorous and going places. I don’t remember where the steamie was, my memories of it are more the smells and sensations than what the women were actually doing. I think I had to concentrate on ‘not getting in the road’. Even when my aunt was doing well in her job and providing a better standard of living for them, Granny preferred to wash things in the sink than use the washing machine. It wasn’t to be trusted. The main advantage of having a house with a garden in her view was that she could get the washing hung out. That was convenient and healthy.

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  44. Lucky woman in the first photo with her pram. The other two are smiling, but their arms must have been dropping off by the time they got home. The physical strength women exerted on housework every day.
    I was lucky growing up in that we had a twin tub, but there were clothes perpetually drying on the clothes horse. I bought a tumble dryer as soon as I could afford one and squeezed it in the out house.

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  45. My family lived in a smaller community, where there was a communal wash-house in the “close”, with an enormous coal-fired boiler, washtubs, glass washboards and huge hand-cranked wringers. My granny used to let me help with wringing the sheets, but nothing smaller in case I got my hands caught. This would have been the late 1960’s: no electric washing machines yet!
    On a contemporary note, I just read “Spin Cycle” by Zoe Strachan, set in a present-day Glasgow laundrette. An interesting read, though it has a rather disturbing undercurrent / plot.

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  46. We also have laundromats in cites in France, we pay some coins for the washing machines or the dryers. There are very popular in big cites like Paris, where the appartments are sometimes so small that there is no space enough for a washing machine or a dryer. It’s also very useful to wash some big pieces of linen like a big quilt or fabric afghans…
    Agnès

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  47. A very interesting post. Growing up in New Zealand in the 1950’s I remember the copper in the garden. It was wood fired and my mother boiled up the laundry in there and hung it on the revolving clothesline. By the 60’s we had a washing machine and shortly afterwards a drier. Mum kept the copper for taking the skins off peaches and other stone fruit.

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  48. I will think of this post next time my son and I are pushing a cart of laundry to our laundromat in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s already so nice to feel connected to other women across generations and oceans. Thank you!

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  49. Brilliant, thanks for sharing the riches. As I started reading I thought about Glenogle, where my school had swimming lessons, and then there was your mention of it!

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  50. What a fascinating post. I’ve never heard of the steamies but am reminded of my own mother boiling the washing ( dazzling white sheets, pillowcases, hankies, shirts and knickers!) in a gas copper and scrubbing jeans, stiff with concrete and coal dust, on a wooden draining board.
    Later they’d be put through the mangle and, in the winter, would hang stiffly on the washing lione until brought in to be draped over the clothes horse to dry in front of the fire.
    Whilst not wishing to romanticise the steamies there is much to like in such a communal activity. We are all so isolated now. All needing to buy, and replace, our own washing-machines and tumble driers. It makes no sense but does keep the capitalist/consumerist machine rolling.

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  51. Fascinating. Your history tells us so much about the lives of women. I live in a neighbourhood which was mostly built between 1820 and 1860. There doesn’t seem to be any documented history of public washing places, as far as I can tell from a quick internet search. The closest thing here are our laundromats, which are numerous, mainly due to our large population of Queen’s University students. I can tell you that I remember my grandmother (born during the reign of Victoria) hanging wet laundry out to “dry” in freezing weather so that everything would come back into the house stiff as a board. I also remember her putting Grampy’s socks to dry on sock stretchers. And I remember her darning them. Not much of that going on any more!

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  52. Oh what memories you have revived. The strongest is the smell of the steamie. A clean, fresh smell that no modern laundry products come anywhere near replicating. A smell derived from a mixture of washing (caustic) soap, soap powder (omo and persil) bleach, the pine resin from the duckboards that kept your feet above the puddles of steaming water, and the peculiar dry air smell that came from the dryers which were giant clotheshorses which operated much like book and archive sliding storage ( seen in the background of your penultimate photo. The predominant smells in the “baths” were those of carbolic soap and again the pine resin of the duckboards – no such things as bath mats in the steamie.

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    1. Do you know how long it would take the clothes to dry there? Would you be able to take dry clothes home the same day, or would it take longer? Would clothes be left overnight?!?

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      1. I think it took about twenty minutes to half an hour to get the clothes dry enough for ironing, but as memories are from the 1950’s it may well be that it just seemed a long time to me as a child.

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  53. When I was growing up, my mother did our laundry in the kitchen. She had a wringer washer and two laundry tubs for rinsing. We didn’t have hot running water so a big tub was filled and heated on the cook stove. When it was hot, she carefully filled the washer with it. The rinse tubs had cold water (as I remember). When I was in my mid-20s, I moved into my first apartment. I used the neighborhood coin-operated laundromat to do my washing. It was quite convenient because, if you timed it correctly, you could use three or four washers at the same time, thus getting all the loads done quickly. The same was true of the dryers. In my 30’s I purchased my first house and still used the laundromat for several years until I had the money to buy an automatic washer. I had clotheslines in the basement where I hung the laundry to dry. It wasn’t until 1998 when I bought the house where I currently live that I got a dryer.

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  54. I love your writing, pictures and comments!!
    I sincerely hope you are feeing better. Those shortbread cookies are calling me!!

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  55. Takes me back to when I was a youngster and living in Scotland with my parents. I remember the steamies well – a great place to catch up on the gossip! Jean originally from Glasgow.

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  56. Lovely post! As an American I grew up with, and then as an adult, lived with the usual conveniences — either something in the house, or in the building, or around the corner in a laundromat. Same in Spain. Then I moved to Holland. At my first place I strapped awkwardly large bags to the back of my bike and paid horrendous amounts of money to use the laundromat about a kilometer away. I moved. The landlady wanted a usurious 6 euros a wash, I wasn’t allowed to put my own machine in, and the nearest laundromat was over 2 km away (and while it was also crazy expensive, it seemed positively reasonable compared to her rates). So what did I do? I returned to another to another time! I boiled my socks and whites in a big stock pot on the stove — which works beautifully, I must say. For everything else I stopped the drain in my shower (bath tubs are also rare here) and soaked it, usually overnight. This was the easy part — sometimes too easy, since then I’d have to do the rest. To wit: stomp on it like the old wine-making method, rub and scrub it all, and then rinse it (oh, was that exhausting — sheets and jeans and towels are HEAVY). Wring it all out (really tired now), and then wring it out again since you never get all the water out in the first go. How I longed for one of those old hand-crank wringers… Then I hung it up on racks to dry in my kitchen, where despite the multiple wringings, it would continue to drip and drip and drip into lots of puddles and rivulets across my floor. I would usually coordinate this with my floor mopping to be efficient. But, however labor intensive, it worked, and I did it for two and a half years. Now I have a different apartment (and joy of joys!) both a washing machine AND a dryer! It’s been a year and a half already, but still with every load I pop in I can’t believe how easy it is. Put it in, go about your business. It beeps. Take it out. Put it in the next one, continue with your life until that one beeps. Take it out. Fold. Done!!

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  57. My great-grandparents in the Midwestern U.S. just used a pump and a tub, as far as I know. It would be interesting to see if women in a neighborhood got together to do their laundry at the same time, though. It would make sense if someone had a bucket of suds drawn up already, why not share the water? I’ll have to ask my family.

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  58. So interesting! My grandmother was born in 1888 and lived her whole life in Hoboken, New Jersey in a series of low rent walk up apartments. She had 10 children and did all the family laundry in her kitchen by boiling it and using a mechanical wringer. Then she hung it out the window on a clothes line that was on a pulley across the alley between the buildings. She began using a neighborhood coin operated laundromat in the 50’s. She didn’t move into a building with washing machines in the basement until the late 60’s.

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  59. It makes me a little envious when I look at the photos and see the animated expressions on the women. Hard times but they had such a network of friends.

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  60. Kate. What a lovely nostalgic post. As a young child, brought up in Glasgow. I remember my mother going to the steamie. My father told a story that when he and my mother were first married my mother used to take the washing in a suitcase so that no one on the street could see it. I don’t know why she did this because she was a wonderful homemaker. To this day I can wash anything successfully because of what she taught me.

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  61. What a fascinating post! It made me wonder about the history of laundry facilities in the US, particularly Maine, where I’m from. My mom grew up in a large French-Canadian family who all lived in tenements near the mill where they worked. She grew up in the ‘50s and ’60s and her family did their laundry in the house. They had a washing machine, but no running hot water, and everyone in the building had their own clothesline off the porch to dry their clothes. Laundry facilities certainly weren’t something that the city or state provided (and I doubt that anyone even expected them to be)!

    My suspicion is that privately-owned laundries were products of the “American dream” from the mid-19th century onwards. The business of laundry perhaps lent itself well to independent entrepreneurship at a time when the country was experiencing an influx of new immigrants. For instance, my city got its first laundry operated by a Chinese immigrant in 1877 and I think most other towns and cities of any size followed this trend into the 20th century. It seems that this was a niche in local markets that was readily filled by private establishments, often operated by immigrant families. I bet that’s one reason why we’ve always had private laundry facilities here.

    Thanks so much for a history-filled afternoon!

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  62. Such an interesting glimpse into another time and way of life! I sometimes think about the American Indians when I hike and what their life and thoughts might have been. Thanks for another terrific post!

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  63. Hope you are feeling better!
    You always have the most interesting info and photos!
    I remember visiting my cousin in Tokyo in the 70s while she was in college there.
    She definitely used a public bath house. Her studio was teeny…one bathroom per floor – there must’ve been 15 units per floor. Fond memories for me, I was maybe 4? We did not stay with her, but I still remember the nice smell of the tatami in her studio….

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  64. In Italy (north, in the Dolomites) we didn'”t have steamies, bu the river ;-)
    it was wonderful to play around while women of my village were washing, singing and laughing !!
    great souvenirs ;-)

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  65. > Watch “Fetch the Midwife” and everyone has clean hair and clothes – fat chance in a city with coal fires, nearly continuous smogs and weekly bathing!

    I find it weird how quickly the experience of hot water as a luxury has disappeared. I grew up relatively middle class in Belfast in the 60s and 70s. Hot water was generated via an immersion heater, or a back boiler on the coal fire, and was expensive enough that baths were something you had on Saturday nights. You washed every day, but really only face and armpits. Showers were exotic and rare, and I didn’t really encounter the idea that really clean people had a shower every day until I was well into my 20s.

    btw I don’t know if you know the Richard Thompson song Beeswing, but the narrator “took a job in the steamie, down on Calton Street/And I fell in love with a laundry girl who was working next to me.” She begs him to take her away: “Young man, oh can’t you see I’m not the factory kind/
    If you don’t take me out of here I’ll surely lose my mind” and they take to the roads: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HApy-Xoix-g

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  66. I still use a laundromat here in Virginia, as the water from our well is mineral tinted and I don’t want all our clothes turning iron rich red! They are privately run and, as far as I know, always have been. And, here at least, they are used for the mostly by lower income urban folk. And me.
    I have never heard of any public baths though… pools yes, but not hot baths.

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  67. Great post ,as always, Kate. I never knew about Steamies. Here in Australia (to the best of my knowledge and I’m happy to be corrected) I’m only aware of laundromats – like our American friends – privately run. They’re getting a bit thin on the ground now too. That’s what we used when we first moved out of home into share houses. You might be lucky if you got a fridge in a rental property but a washing machine was scarce and a dryer unheard of.

    I always say a silent prayer of thanks in my little laundry as I load up my automatic washing machine and can’t imagine what it must have been like doing it all by hand. I find housework tedious enough as it is. I would have been a real old sour puss in another age.

    As I get older and I walk/drive about my town I think about all the places and people I’ve known at particular points in my life and have a running dialogue in my head (I used to drive the kids mad when they were little I’m sure telling them as we drove about) – e.g. “That’s the house where Ben was born. That’s Pat and Terry’s first place. That’s where we used to drink after work. That’s where the RSL used to be. Jessie dog used to love that park.” Does anybody else do that? Or is it the first sign of madness/dementia?

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  68. Funnily enough my parents (in the their late 60’s) and I were talking about this just last weekend – we had read that revolting email doing the rounds that insists that life was better in the past and Mum and Dad were begging to differ. Both were from traditional working class backgrounds, both lived in terrace houses in Manchester and neither of them saw an indoor bathroom until they were adults! My mum bathed in a tin bath in the kitchen until she was 16 and then began to go to the local public bathhouse – Dad was the same. They spoke with admiration of the gallons of hot water available in deep enamel baths for a few pennies – although Dad mentioned the lack of doors on the cubicles! Dad went to Harpuhey baths which, like the ones in Edinburgh finally closed down in the 1980’s. Although they had swimming pools, the public baths in Manchester were primarily practical – washing yourself and your clothes! I’m nearly 50 and lucky enough to have lived with indoor bathrooms and washing machines but one of my childhood homes had a laundry in the backyard where the copper would have been boiled for washing and that (I think) would have counted as luxury in the bad old days – can you imagine the effort of bringing the water to the boil in huge and heavy pots – washing and rinsing with (home made) soap, running it through a mangle and then the despair when it comes off the line covered in coal smuts! Watch “Fetch the Midwife” and everyone has clean hair and clothes – fat chance in a city with coal fires, nearly continuous smogs and weekly bathing!

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    1. No, nothing to do with Darwin’s tree. Looking at the shoes, I would guess that it’s early 1970’s. The lettering appears to me as Y D T superimposed on each other, which ties in with gang names of that era. I would hazard an educated guess and say that this might be the door of Simon Square Steamie, and that the spray painters in question may have been members of the Young Dumbie(dykes) Terrors??? or something of that ilk.

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      1. Well that makes more sense, even if it is disappointing there wasn’t a band of roving street taggers in Scotland promoting evolution. Thanks for the clarification!

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  69. I so look forward to getting your updated it is always inspiring and educational. I hope to visit your fair city one day.

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  70. We visited Scotland, including Edinburgh, in 1975. We stayed at friends of friends, in a very tony neighbourhood (locked park), but on our walks about the city we came across one of these communal laundry facilities. My memory is that women were washing by hand, at long rows of sinks and counters. It was quite dark and gloomy inside. I know my partner took pictures inside – it seemed so out-of-place for visitors from North America in 1975 (I’ve never heard of these in Canada, even decades ago; must research it). I’ll try and find an old picture or negative.

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  71. Thanks for posting this, makes me wonder about the situation back in Dublin back then. I do know about my adopted home Iceland, the current main shopping street Laugavegur translates to Pool Street, as its the long road women walked to Laugurdalur(Pool Valley), the valley where the hot springs were that you washed your laundry. I walked the same walk to work every day and its long enough without carrying your load of laundry!
    Konur við þvotta í Þvottalaugunum í Laugardal / Women washing laundry in Laugardalur, 1902 – 1910

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  72. What an interesting concept, one I’ve never heard of in my neck of the woods (San Francisco). The Tenement Museum site (NYC) has a photo archive that shows laundry was done in the apartments, but perhaps they had a cleaner water supply? Anyway, it’s a great archive if you want to divert your attention from work for a bit.

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  73. I remember that our house still had a shared washing room in the cellar where you could boil your laundry in a large tub. The house had been built in the 60es and the room was dedicated to the 8 families living there, though in the 80es when I was s kid only one old lady was still using it. (I found it trather fascinating then.) Oh, that’s been in the GDR then. (So definitely not a privately owned house.)

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  74. Hi Kate, thank you for this interesting blog post. There were steamies (wash houses) in Germany when I was a child. I remember having seen them in operation in Bavaria and in Swabia in the country-side. Our very small town also had a wash house, and one had to draw lots for turns. Same as the public baking house. In fact, the baking house is still in operation. It is heated (such as the water in the wash house) with the cuttings of vines. These cuttings had a special Swabian dialect name (Grähele). My grandmother, who had seven children all born shortly after the turn of the last century, used to have a wash woman come in to take the laundry to the wash house.

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  75. Cheers, Kate. Fascinating read, and well-written. Such pictures!
    So many small corners of the social fabric (particularly those of women) have disappeared or been replaced nearly without a trace – thank you for bringing this particular corner to our attention.

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  76. Laudromats are found most often in the cities here in the US, where there are lots of older apartments. And usually these areas are low-class to middle class. Very, very rare out here in suburbia and newer apartments that tend to have their own laundry rooms with coin-operated washers and dryers. And of course, houses will most likely have a washer and dryer installed. I’m not sure what did people before washers and dryers were invented, though.

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  77. After having a washer and dryer in my mothers house for 10 years I returned to Marin County CA and had to go back to using the public laundromat near my digs. I must say I really don’t mind it because at the public laundromat I can put the 3-4 loads in all at once and then to dryers all at once and after folding I’m done. These places are privately owned I believe and I don’t recall any that were city run.
    This is a very interesting article. Thank you!

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  78. Such an interesting blog Kate, If you go to the archive at the School of Scottish Studies at George Square, there are some really interesting sound recordings of women sharing their experiences of wash days…from very rural, and a humble pot over an open flame, to reminiscences of the city steamies.

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  79. I spent a year working as a nurse in Edinburgh and lived on Bonnington Road. These pictures are certainly before my time ; ) but your post brought back a lot of great memories. Thanks.

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  80. I can understand why people loved their steamie. Must have been so important for socail life back then. Makes me a little nostalgic for something I didn’t know existed until this minute… I have never heard of anything like them in either Denmark or Norway, where I grew up – my mother lived outside the city centre of Oslo in the fifties and does remember the days before the washing machine, but they boiled the laundry at home. I’ll ask around!

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  81. Thanks for posting this story, Kate. I always enjoy your posts about life in Edinburgh. My husband’s parents were both from Edinburgh and we still have relatives there. At some point before the war his parents moved to Glasgow and that is where he was born and raised. Again we have family there too. He has talked about the steamie that was on the green behind there apartment building that all the residents used and the children used as their “fort” later on.

    Hope you are feeling better today.

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  82. Steamies how lovely. I have always used the laundromats other mentioned here. Washing is a chore for me. I hate doing it. Ha ha
    But be apart of a Steamies back then look very engaging. Thanks for sharing.

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  83. Kate, such an interesting post and makes me so thankful for the blessings of our modern age and yet we are probably missing so many of the social and community benefits which that lifestyle provided. (no need for fitness centers either)
    This also gave me some insight into how my Great Grandmothers may have lived. Did they have “steamies” in England and Ireland? I trust you are feeling better and am praying for your recovery. I look forward to your posts, patterns and photos.
    Barbara (Canada)

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  84. What spectacular pictures! They all look like they’re having so much fun, and “steamie” is such a much nicer word than “laundromat”. I use them only for the washing of the doggie laundry (beds and sheets to cover the seats for car travel), since I don’t want all the hair going into my plumbing. Thanks for the fun education!

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  85. How fascinating! Thank you so much for these historical posts. I know they still had public bath places in Frankfurt, Germany when I was young, but public laundries? I’ll need to look into that…

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  86. The U.S. has laudromats with coin-operated machines (and still does, to this day). They are, however, privately owned and operated. They tend to be a combination of laundromat and dry cleaners. Most people who live in homes have washer/dryers, but those living in apartment buildings usually don’t (though they sometimes have their own shared washroom with several machines).

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  87. We have laundromats? Coin operated laundries where you go to wash your clothes if you don’t have a washer and dryer at home. I’ve used them for years as many apartments here don’t have washer/dryer hookups or space for them. When I was in college, our dorm has a public laundry room in the basement that everyone used.

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