Sunday afternoons should never be spent in a laundromat if you can avoid it. One of the outcomes of our recent move is that I went from having my own washer and dryer to having a washer that floods the basement and a landlord who isn't inclined to fixing it. That means I've had to spend some time getting reacquainted with coin-operated laundromats—and their particular social nuances.

Clean clothes are a luxury

In places where access to water is an issue, laundry means either bringing water into your home (maybe using buckets or pots) or traveling to a water source. It's labor intensive and time consuming. And if getting water for laundry is an issue, then it's also likely an issue for bathing, cooking, and drinking. Given those needs, laundry drops to the bottom of the list as a priority. However, once you can meet those water needs, laundry becomes important because having clean clothes is a sign of social status. It places you within the boundaries of being socially acceptable.

The most basic means of cleaning clothing is to wet them and beat them against a rock. It gets the job done, but doesn't do much to preserve the life of the fabric. Before indoor plumbing, washboards were fairly common. They were basically a framed ribbed surface that you could rub wet clothes against. It got your clothes clean without reducing them to shreds. But this still meant hours of work—and that was before waiting for the drying to complete.

While washing machines have been around since the late 18th-century, they were largely hand and steam operated, and still required a fair amount of attention from the user. It was only when electric washers began to appear in the early 20th-century, that a more mechanically-guided process became a possibility.

In the United States, the popularity of washing machines rose steadily until the Great Depression hit which put the cost of a washing machine beyond the reach of many people. However, it opened the door for laundromats which allegedly took hold at this time because people who could no longer count on a washing machine, could use the laundromat. Hopeful entrepreneurs purchased washers and began the practice of renting them. Users could deposit coins into the machines to purchase their use for a period of time. Unlike commercial enterprises, which had been around for some time, laundromats were geared specifically to individual users who were solely responsible for the operation of the machine during their rental period.

Following the Great Depression, washing machines were once more pursued as a desirable household appliance. However, the laundromat never quite disappeared. They provide an alternative to having to own your own machines, and put clean clothes within relative reach of many people. Laundromats weren't just for people without the means of purchasing machines, they provided a degree of convenience.

The code of the laundromat

For most of my early teen years we were renters, which meant that part of my weekend was spent helping my mom do laundry. I hated it. It was two or three hours spent in a space that smelled damp—like a moldy dishwasher—trying not to let strangers see my underwear (I was fourteen; I didn't want anyone to see my underwear) and making sure no one stole our detergent. My biggest worry was that something would be left behind in the commotion of transferring clothes from the washer to the dryers to the folding tables. And it came true: a favorite blue sweatshirt went MIA during this time, and I'm sure it fell victim to the laundromat. In any case, we bought a house when I entered by midteens and my life took me away from the coin-operated laundromat. Until last month. And it seems the some things have not changed:

  • Never, ever, ever go on a Sunday afternoon. Friday nights are bad too, as are late Saturday afternoons. Everyone wants in, and there's a line for dryers, and double-washers. You'll have to negotiate or be prepared to aggressively claim the machines you'll need.
  • Children will not be supervised. They'll run laps around the laundromat, yelling at the top of their lungs. Or they'll ride in the laundry carts and use them as bumper cars, in which case you'd better be on alert so you aren't involved in any accidents. They also have a tendency to try to climb into dryers and you'll run the risk of getting chastised by a harried parent if you say something.
  • Protect your underwear. People are watching, particularly if those people are teenage boys who have yet to see lingerie in real life.
  • Your detergent matters. Are you bringing your detergent or buying it from the vending machine? What brand are you using? Do you have dryer sheets? Hangers? You will be judged on the brand of detergent you use—and the extras you bring you to the laundromat. These things all change the way you are treated by laundry regulars—and and whether you'll likely fall victim to laundry fishers who are waiting for your attention to waiver (we'll talk about them more in a bit).

There is a hierarchy that exists at the laundromat. It's a complicated system where rank is issued by degree of regularity, products used, and the ability to commandeer as many carts as you need.

Regular patrons know which machines to use and which to avoid. They're familiar with the attendant and with each other. They may get access to bathroom facilities that others do not. They'll keep an eye on each other's machines and supply additional quarters for each other's dryers (which are paid back) if the owner is not present. They're the ones to stop bored children from riding in carts or from climbing into dryers—at least without repercussion.

The status of regular patrons is enhanced if they bring their own laundry supplies. It suggests preparedness and efficiency: they're there to get in and out. And if those supplies expand beyond laundry detergent, that status is enhanced because it demonstrates (1) having the means of obtaining additional supplies and (2) an understanding of how to enhance your laundry experience.

Laundry carts are a form social currency as well. You have to be able to claim at least one or else you'll not only find it difficult to transport wet clothes to the dryer, but you may find that your laundry supplies vanish when you aren't looking. The cart gives you a temporary space that you can claim as your own. Within this space, you can store laundry supplies and transport your clothing without worry. The more carts you can claim, the more "space" you can claim, which forces others to find ways to work around you.

Watchful washing

The laundromat also makes public something that has become somewhat private. Personal washing machines and dryers take dirty clothes out of the public eye. Dryers mean that you don't have to wait for your clothes to dry, but they also mean that you don't have to air your laundry (so to speak). Whatever you choose to wear, it can be cleaned and dried within the private confines of your home.

Because you are sharing facilities at the laundromat, people may pay more attention to what others have to wash. For example, if someone puts something particularly soiled into a machine, you might not want to be the next person to use that machine. We're far more aware of the possibility of contamination in this environment; we're faced with the need to "protect" our possessions to the best of our ability—and that means watching.

But all that watching can leave you feeling exposed. Clothes are public markers of who we are. The ways in which they get dirty can also be telling. As can fabric patterns and qualities. When worn, clothes are a form of armor. However, as limp, sodden pieces of cloth, they can expose our vulnerabilities: blood from a cut, a tear from a fall, and a stain from a harried lunch are all revealing in how we interact with the world.

Contamination and exposure aren't the only concern. The public nature of the laundromat means that anyone can walk in off of the street and wait for the right opportunity to claim unwatched clothing. Last week a pair of women came in during the bustle of the Sunday afternoon laundry crush and began opening dryers, apparently feeling the clothing inside to see if it was dry. Under the cover of a busy Sunday afternoon, their behavior wasn't suspicious—until another woman confronted them as they were putting clothes into a laundry bag. They had taken a load of her clothes from the dryer and were preparing to take it with them. "It wasn't an accident," explained the laundromat attendant. "Some people fish the laundromat to freshen up their closet." That is to say, they come in and take a gamble with a load of unwatched clothes. They can redistribute anything that doesn't fit.

Suddenly as boring as it is to watch the spin cycle, it seems like it might be worth it—if you watch closely enough, you might learn something new about yourself.

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