We take certain items of luxury for granted – dry cleaning being one. What happens to our clothes after we drop them off at the dry cleaners is a mystery to many. We are only concerned with the end result i.e. clean garments. What happens to our clothes when we drop them off to the cleaners? More importantly, who should we thank for the glorious invention of dry cleaning?
The Earliest Records of Dry Cleaning Goes Back To the Ancient Romans
The ruined Roman city of Pompeii was at the height of modern civilization for that time. Archeologists discovered dry cleaning shops among the city ruins, known as fullers. These effective dry cleaning shops offered their services to the public, using a type of clay (fuller’s clay), lye and ammonia to get stains out of clothes. At first, human urine was used to derive ammonia which was an active agent in the process.
Jean-Baptiste Jolly, His Clumsy Maid and the Discovery of an Effective Dry-Cleaning Process
We should all be thanking the maid for her clumsiness that lead to the discovery of a replacement solvent for ammonia. Then again, the sensitive nature of the French nobility wouldn’t have tolerated such a dry cleaning process that involved animal urine.
It was the 1840s when Jean Baptiste Jolly’s (a French textile maker) maid accidently set fire to a linen tablecloth. The source of the fire was a small kerosene lamp. The textile maker found one spot (where the kerosene had seeped through) was cleaner than rest of the linen cloth! This revelation was quickly turned into an extension of his already booming business. So, it can be said that Jolly-Belin in Paris was the first professional dry-cleaning business of its kind, which used kerosene as the prime cleaning agent.
More experimentation continued with kerosene and gasoline based cleaning throughout 19th century. It was later felt by inventors, industrialists and the public that cleaning clothes by dousing them in flammable liquid wasn’t an ideal process. Not to mention, dry cleaning by kerosene and gasoline based products was highly dangerous. A history of explosions and fires in dry cleaning plants attest to this fact.
End of Twentieth Century Saw Strict Government Control and Regulations towards the Dry Cleaning Industry
After a series of unfortunate events and explosions at dry cleaning plants, the search for safer dry cleaning solvents began at the turn of twentieth century. Strict government regulations towards dry cleaning with highly flammable petroleum products were introduced as well.
Chlorinated solvents became popular for dry cleaning around 1920. This process was significantly safer, less flammable and more effective at cleaning tough stains from clothes. One of these widely used chlorine based solvents was tetrachloromethane which was slowly replaced from the dry cleaning process due to its high toxic and corrosive nature. How does dry cleaning work? Science!
Perchloroethylene Became the Dry-Cleaning Agent of Choice
Another highly efficient chlorinated dry cleaning solvent came to the forefront during the 1930s. Known as perc for short, this solvent was quickly inducted amongst most dry cleaners and is used even to this day. This solvent, among others, is how dry cleaning works. Over the years, the hunt for the perfect dry-cleaning solvent and process has continued aggressively.
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