All Washed Up

9th May 2014

The British launderette is 55 years old this month. Just 15 years after America saw its first laundromat, the first British automatic laundry opened in Queensway, London, on 9 May, 1949, and the word launderette was coined. Kathy Walton takes a spin through some of the more memorable moments in launderette history…

It could be the blast of warm air that hits you when you walk in, or the comforting scent of soap powder or even the heady odour of dry cleaning solvent with its hint of something illicit that does it. Whatever it is, the distinctive atmosphere of a launderette carries a definite whiff of nostalgia for anyone under the age of 60.

They are often in scruffy, even dirty, premises and run-down areas of town, yet the curious thing about launderettes is that whatever spin you put on them, we continue to regard them with great affection. Mention launderettes to just about anyone of a certain age and in all likelihood, they will express surprise that such things still exist and then smile wistfully.

The washers and driers are generally monochrome (beige or grey or silver) though there are some startling oranges and sickly greens still in existence; the instructions pasted on the wall are invariably dog-eared; there may be half a dozen teenagers killing time, even a tramp sheltering from the rain in the corner… yet many a hot romance has been ignited in launderettes, as my friend Don can confirm.

Twenty years ago Don left a note for a pretty young woman that he’d spotted in the launderette, asking her to meet him there during the aptly named ‘bachelor wash’ the following weekend. She did. “Basket case that she was, she accepted and a year later, I was married, pegged in fact,” Don tells me.

Apparently all it takes to kindle romance is for someone who is trying to alleviate the boredom of staring at a revolving drum to strike up a conversation with the person next to them. If the conversation goes well, you surreptitiously repeat the wash cycle and keep talking; if it falters, you leap up with a ‘gosh, finished already’ and simply head off with your pile of clean clothes.

Another advantage of launderette liaisons is that if you are lonely but too shy to chat up a stranger, all you have to do to break the cycle is come back at the same time next week and hope that the person you fancy will be lugging their laundry bag in at the same time and will speak first…

No wonder then that in 1985, the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty chose a launderette to promote Levi jeans. Who can forget the ad featuring a gorgeous young man who goes into a 1950s American laundromat where, to the amazement of the other customers, he calmly strips off to his boxer shorts and puts his jeans in the machine?

Sales of Levi 501s rocketed and Nick Kamen, the hunky chap at the centre of it all, himself found fame and fortune, even if the washing-machines were not actually located in New York, as we all fondly believed, but on West London’s decidedly more prosaic Harrow Road.

Sir John Hegarty, the brains behind the advertising campaign selling that most democratic of garments, a pair of jeans, once explained his rationale. “We wanted an egalitarian environment, somewhere you would find almost anyone and the launderette had that.”

Very flatteringly for Sir John, a later ad for Carling Black Label lager showed two Northerners in a launderette, naked except for a strategically placed newspaper in their laps, mocking the wimp next to them for keeping his underpants on.

At a time when a launderette could be found in every town, it is perhaps no coincidence that as well as the Levi jeans ad, one of the most successful films of 1985 was also set there. Writer Hanif Kureishi and director Stephen Frears explored racism and homosexuality during the Thatcher era in their coming-of-age comedy drama My Beautiful Launderette, in which love and hatred boiled away in a south London launderette, owned by a British-Pakistani businessman and his gay son.

And just a year or so earlier, an episode of popular television series The Young Ones showed the main (and filthy) characters leaving their squalid flat to visit a launderette for the first time.

As the above dramas suggests – and as anyone who has ever used one will tell you – a launderette is a real melting-pot, a wonderful way to people-watch and even to meet up, rather like the village pump of days gone by.

The residents of Albert Square may not air their dirty washing often in Dot Cotton’s launderette, but after nearly 30 years of EastEnders, it remains the series’ second social hub after the Queen Vic (whose bar mats are laundered by Dot). While dirty language gets hurled about in the pub, the launderette is the place where secrets are shared and calmer, pivotal conversations take place.

In real life however, launderettes do struggle to compete with domestic washing-machines. Most now have to supplement their income by offering dry-cleaning, ironing and repair services, often with free collections and delivery, and by washing duvets that are too big for the machine at home.

One Manchester launderette has kept going by providing comfy sofas, piles of magazines and theatre flyers to flick through and a coffee machine. In a bid to be less Dot Cotton and more dotcom, it even provides high-speed computers for customers who want to play games or watch films online while their washing goes round – known locally as the ‘wash n surf’.

There are currently some 3,000 launderettes in the UK and although – or perhaps because – numbers were much higher in the early 1980s (when they peaked at 12,500), many of us still cherish fond memories of using one. The memories can be amusing too; as early as 1964, the hit single Leader of the Pack by The Shangri-Las was parodied by The Detergents in their top-20 single Leader of the Laundromat.

According to The National Association of the Launderette Industry (NALI) the most frequent users in cities are students, recent immigrants who are too poor to buy a machine, well-heeled ‘fluff n fold’ professionals who work long hours and like their washing done for them, the lonely, the old and those looking for peace and quiet (though perhaps not in Manchester). In traditional British seaside resorts, tourists who are desperate to dry their clothes after a fortnight’s rain, are among launderettes’ biggest customers.

There are still plenty of bumps to iron out if the launderette is to survive, but NALI believes that every town can support one. The start-up costs are high, but custom is generally steady (and especially good in winter) and so is the revenue. If they are centrally located, with nearby parking (no one wants to carry heavy laundry very far) and if the manager has the imagination to offer something extra, there is no reason why launderettes shouldn’t have a future.

Sir John Hegarty, creator of that now iconic Levis ad, goes further, saying that every town should have a launderette.

“If institutions don’t evolve with society, then they fall. You have to look at what launderettes are offering, whether or not they are social centres and how you could encourage that.”
To put it another way, it will all come out in the wash…

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