What’s Dry Cleaning?

In Pompeii around 79 somebody urinated, somebody else took the ammonia out, and dry cleaning was born.  Why?  Because they were wearing a lot of wool (seems like a heavy fabric to me when you are beneath a volcano) and wool shrinks in water.  Imagine you take a week or whatever to weave your Pompeiian partner a wool… sweater?… and the next day it rains and they hand it down to your kid.  That’s aggravating.

How did they think to use the ammonia from urine?  Aliens.  You tell me.  If you were standing there with a dirty sweater that you couldn’t wash in the Pompeiian river, would you turn to your buddy and say, “Do me a favor and relieve yourself in this bucket and distill the ammonia out of it?”  Neither would I, or anybody else we know.  Aliens.

Time passes, and greasy stains happen.  The Drycleaning And Laundry Institute (let’s just call them DLI as we are going to refer to them a few times here) reports that the next reference to dry cleaning (and they would know) is when a maid spills kerosene on a greasy stain.   Kerosene evaporates, and with it goes a large degree of the stain.  Viola.  Dry cleaning.

According to the Handbook Of Solvents…

This compelling read can still be found on Amazon. I would buy it for the font.


… the good people at Tienturierr Jolly – Belin in Paris started the first ever dry cleaning business.  It is depicted thus:

Makes one wonder whether percussive guitar playing also began as dry cleaning.


Picked up a few things on Saturday from the dry cleaners when it dawned on me that I didn’t even know what the dry cleaners was.  I know the guy is very nice.  When I got sick I stopped wearing suits.  When I got better I walked in one day and he asked me to please go home and get all my suits and bring them in.  I did, though at the time I spent the whole next week worrying about the tab.  A week later I came back in, and he handed me the suits and I went to pay and he said something to the effect of, “No charge no charge.  Good to see Mr. Burton walking around again, and good to see suit walking.”

Turns out dry cleaning is anything but.  It is the use of liquids to clean, just not water.  As I understand it other liquids are wet too, by definition, but do YOU wanna take that up with the DLI?  Cause I don’t.  I avoid any agency that has a three letter initialism.

And I thought we were having a hard time getting the logo right.


If you took your French cuffs to Tienturierr Jolly – Belin, they would have been soaked in turpentine and then air dried.   Today, if one of my shirts were soaked in turpentine, I would take it to the dry cleaners.

This is Thomas L. Jennings.

From the African American Registry:
  Thomas L. Jennings was born free to a free Black family in New York City. As a youth, he learned a trade as a tailor. He built a business and married a woman named Elizabeth from Delaware who was born into slavery.  Under New York’s gradual abolition law of 1799, she was converted to the status of an indentured servant and was not eligible for full emancipation until 1827.
 At the time the abolition law freed slave children born after July 4, 1799, but only after they had served “apprenticeships” of twenty-eight years for men and twenty-five for women thus compensating owners for the future loss of their property. He and his wife had three children: Matilda, Elizabeth, and James. Jennings built a business as a tailor and spent his early earnings on legal fees to purchase his wife and some of their children out of slavery. He was instrumental in the founding and was a trustee of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and also supported the abolitionist movement and became active in working for the rights of free Blacks.


Mr. Jennings was not only well turned out and a tremendous man by all accounts.  He was also the first African American patent holder in the US.  For… his dry cleaning technology in 1821.  He continued working in both dry cleaning AND civil rights.  Again, from the African American Registry:

In 1821 he was the first Blacks to be granted a patent for his method of dry cleaning. With the proceeds of his invention, he bought his wife and children’s freedom, then continued his civil rights work.  He was active on issues related to emigration to other countries; opposing colonization in Africa, as proposed by the American Colonization Society; and supporting the expansion of suffrage for Black men.  Jennings became active in working for civil rights for the Black community. In 1831, he was selected as assistant secretary to the First Annual National Negro Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

After his daughter,Elizabeth was forcibly removed from a “whites only” streetcar in New York City, he organized a movement against racial segregation in public transit in the city; the services were provided by private companies. Elizabeth Jennings won her case in 1854. Along with James McCune Smith and Rev. James W.C. Pennington, he created the Legal Rights Association in 1855, a pioneering civil rights organization. in New York City, New York. He operated and owned a tailoring business.  Thomas Jennings died on February 12, 1856.

Dry cleaning evolved with a number of marriages to petroleum, ending with perchloroethylene. Until people started studying THAT.  Turns out perchloroethylene is pretty bad for you, and it also turns out that most of the perchloroethylene in the atmosphere comes from the dry cleaning industry.

Now, of course, there are more environmentally friendly alternatives, which I am guilty of not paying that much attention to, but will now.  I am glad I checked.



27 Comments on "What’s Dry Cleaning?"

  1. Not to hop on my environmentally-friendly high horse (I went to Boulder, I can’t help it)–I rarely use the dry cleaners any longer, except the “green” dry cleaner in town for things like silk blouses. I’ve found the Laundress’s products to work just as well, if not better, for most things, such as wool sweaters or cashmere anything. Plus, both the environment and my wallet breathe a sigh of relief when I can wash a dozen cashmere sweaters at home instead of picking them up from the dry cleaner!

    Hi! What’s Laundress? – JB

  2. I’m certainly grateful for the existence of drycleaning. I wouldn’t dream of washing my flannel trousers, which are the items I have drycleaned most frequently.

  3. Boston Bream | February 7, 2022 at 10:54 am |

    I was confused at first,but apparently The Laundress is a brand of pricey detergent for handwashing sweaters: up-market Woolite.

    Hi! Got it, thanks! – JB

  4. Sorry! Yes, the Laundress is a company that sells detergent, etc. I have done comparisons with Woolite and the Laundress’s detergent and far prefer the latter. They both get the job done, but the Laundress does a better job and smells niceer, in my opinion! https://www.thelaundress.com

    Awesome thanks! – JB

  5. I, too, rarely use the dry cleaners. But then, I don’t have cashmere sweaters and such. I give my wool suits, etc. a light brushing every once in awhile. When I find a stain I can’t live with, I find it can usually be picked out with a safety pin, or dry scrub it by hand, or some such method. It will usually flake off. Silk neckties can be more difficult. Speaking of silk neckties, I find that they eventually become discolored at the knot from the oil in my fingers. Then what? Can I continue to wear them in the spirit of a frayed collar or cuff? Who remembers the jingle, “You’ll look better in a sweater washed in Woolite”? And for ring around the collar, there was Spray and Wash stick, no longer can I find at the stores. While I’m at it, who remembers static cling? Polyester over-the-calf socks has solved that, but occasionaly I like to weat wool socks. Nevertheless we are certainly blessed to have drycleaning available.

  6. I’ve been told dry cleaning will destroy silk. So, I took an older, dirty silk tie to the dry cleaners as a test drive. Yep, it pretty much disolved the fabric. So what am I missing here?

  7. Stuff is F’-ING HORRIBLE for you–for us, for the world. For all of us–everything and everyone. So is that hideous polarfleece/polartec. Here endeth the sermon–Sort of. Ecological awareness/activism is GOOD because it’s selfish–self-interested. We’re mindful of our environment for the sake of ourselves and our progeny. Planet earth will outlast us:


    , but let’s make the best of it — while we can.

    buy an iron and use a bit of simple water-corn starch.

  8. Fascinating story on Thomas L. Jennings and his contributions to modern life. I had never heard of him. Thanks for the illuminating history lesson.
    I had forgotten how toxic those dry cleaning chemicals are. I take my suits, sport coats, wool coats, and sweaters to the neighborhood dry cleaner, a very considerate woman named Tammie with an astonishing memory for names and details. I make a point to go as infrequently as possible: I only dry clean my wool articles once a year, if even. Woolens don’t need nearly as much cleaning as we often think they do. (And I promise my clothes don’t smell. My fiancée would let me know.)
    Thanks Sarah @ Fewer & Better for the reminder about The Laundress. J. Crew also sells their products, I think.

  9. *Correction: I just looked, and it seems J. Crew no longer sells The Laundress products. Best to get them from Sarah @ Fewer & Better’s link above.

  10. Echo comments on the Laundress. Top shelf. Aside from delicates, I send my items to be laundered – some are “dry cleaned”, I suppose. Believe that the new crop of “organic” dry cleaners use solvents free of petroleum and perchloroethylene, at least our cleaner purports to.

    Really enjoyed the story on Thomas Jennings.

  11. whiskeydent | February 7, 2022 at 5:47 pm |

    The label on a pair of seersucker pants always says “dry clean only” or similar. Why the hell is that? They’re just cotton.

    Why can’t I wash in cold water, air dry, and iron? Or can I? The same goes for linen BTW, though I’m seeing more linen labels that say they are machine washable.

    Is there some evil conspiracy involving the cotton and linen clothing makers and the dry cleaners???

    These are important questions for those of us who swelter for five months a year.

  12. Marc Chevalier | February 7, 2022 at 9:03 pm |

    Sounds like nobody in here has heard of professional wet cleaning. Google it. Much less toxic, and remarkably effective.

  13. Ironing – yes ironing, may be the reason many people still send fabrics such as wool to a dry cleaner. Anything Cotton, Linen, or any other natural fabric can be hand washed. Use a pressing cloth, like the tail or back of a retired OCBD, turn the iron to the wool setting, take your time. Oh, and get a drying rack for your tub to let your items dry out. Don’t iron them (the wool items) when wet.

    Silk is from the cocoon of a silkworm – of course you cannot dry-clean it – heck, you can hardly get anything out of a silk tie – that is not armor-all protected in some way. So, when having soup or pasta at lunch I suggest the following:

    1. Don’t – but if you have to….
    2. Unbutton the second button on your shirt
    3. Tuck in your tie
    4. Enjoy Lunch

    As an option – only eat out for lunch on Tuesdays, the day you wear a boy tie. If you splash on that one, well….

  14. Future Fogey | February 7, 2022 at 10:59 pm |

    The only Roman who could ostensibly be ‘beneath’ Mt. Vesuvius was Vulcan.

    Beneath is defined (per Oxford Languages) as “at a lower level or layer than.” Mt. Vesuvius is at 4,203 feet elevation, and Pompeii is at 46 feet. Hold on, let me get the pencil. Carry the 7, wait. YES. 4,203 > 46, therefore every-fricking-body-in-Pompeii-was-BENEATH the volcano. – JB

  15. Criag Fulton | February 8, 2022 at 12:20 am |

    @Future Fogey,
    I assume that you are arguing that ‘below’ should have been used instead of ‘beneath’. If so, could you please explain why? Thanks.

    I added a note and hopefully clarity to the comment – JB

  16. The laundress: https://www.thelaundress.com/?gclsrc=aw.ds&gclid=CjwKCAiAo4OQBhBBEiwA5KWu_0QrTrro-Zjy9F5X3MCl8oGKx-QRdHnlT_pQRqdnQzNHzXVl6QoxRBoCM9UQAvD_BwE
    And on amazon.

    In chem class we used dry cleaning solvent in an experoment and were instructed to USE IT ONLY UNDER THE HOOD, MAKE SURE YOUR VENTING FAN IS ON, and DO NOT SPILL IT ON YOURSELF. Their emphasis, not.mine.
    Well guess who spilled it on themselves. That stuff eats nitrile gloves for breakfast.
    The burn healed quickly using egg whites. No joke.
    Never could bring myself to dry clean anything again after that.

    Holy S. – JB

  17. “woolens don’t need nearly as much cleaning as we often think they do.”

    Yes and so true. Dry cleaning, even the organic sort, is NEVER good for wool. Never. As in– never. As in NOT ever.

    Is the obsession with a certain sort of cleanliness an American thing? Most things, including skin and hair btw, are better off without soaps–including the mass produced crap.

    Several local dry cleaners have gone out of business. Fine with me. It was only a matter of time. This pandemic hastened many good things, including this. Not to go all Schumpeter, but, well, you know– creative destruction. Meanwhile every Chick-Fil-A within a 100-mile radius thrives. Capitalism is funny and even strange.

  18. My flannel trousers are easier to iron with a sharp crease after they have been drycleaned. I don’t know why.

  19. @S.E. – look at average BMI in America over the past 50 years (% obese adults in 1960 – 10% – 42.5% in 2018). That stratospheric increase explains both the popularity of “gentleman’s cut” trousers as well as the result of Chic Fil A proliferation (just using them as you mentioned it, but there are of course others).

    I’ll continue to drop my clothes off at the dry cleaner – even (gasp!) wool on occasion. Can’t be bothered to iron, and can always have replacement garments made.

  20. I stopped using commercial laundry for my all cotton shirts years ago. The process destroys the fabric and as we’ve seen in FB IS posting, the shirt will tear to shreds after a while. My process is to wash the shirt with like colors, then press using spray starch as needed. There are many helpful videos on YT on how to press a dress shirt and after a while it becomes second nature. IF you have stains around the neck or cuff the best way to remove is to use FELS NAPTHA SOAP directly onto the area and scrub with the soap bar. The soap is cheap, readily available and extremely hard and will last forever. If that fails my second choice is ammonia which removes just about everything.

  21. above source – CDC, National Center for Health Statistics.

    Think we could trade any obsession with a sort of cleanliness for an obsession for health and wellness – and that you may even agree with me! I’ll still drop clothes at the laundry.

  22. Indeed, the first two paragraphs of the article made day or probably the entire week.

    Thankfully the ammonia extraction is not so much of a question these days, but a fortnight ago I found myself on fronted with enigmatic information on a care and handling label of a Ralph Lauren corduroy sports coat.

    Investigations on whether to give the garment to a dry cleaners or not (I eventually did despite the 100% cotton shell) brought me to this handy overview of all laundry symbols which maybe could be helpful to fellow forists: https://www.ihateironing.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/The-complete-care-label-gude-min.png

  23. I started weaning from the Dry Cleaners when they migrated to “environmentally safe” chemicals…as in they charge the same amount but my clothes were not getting anywhere near clean but we shouldn’t care because it is politically correct.
    Varnish Makers and Painters Naptha (VMP) used to be good for spot cleaning ties.
    I still use it (lightly) for ones I am particularly fond of when they get to the retirement stage.

  24. Oh, and I’ve used the Laundress products for years. They are great and since you don’t use a lot it is not as expensive as it first seems.
    I get them from “The Container Store” locally and order from their website.

  25. Oh, and I’ve used the Laundress products for years. They are great and since you don’t use a lot it is not as expensive as it first seems.
    I get them from “The Container Store” locally and order from their website.

  26. You guys are doing great in cleaning industry. But the best one I know is Ebury. You can visit them by the click.

  27. laundromats in London are improving their services because of the rising demands from the clients. People are aware now of the trend and the laundries are moving up with the best in technology and response.

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