A Brief History of Dry Cleaning

Toga parties are not simply a cliché of college-set films and TV shows. The entire concept of dry cleaning could be considered a 2,000-year-old toga party. It was the ancient Romans who first realized that certain garments - namely their white woolen togas - were best cleaned by substances other than water. Water would shrink the wool and wouldn’t be as successful at stain removal as other chemicals.

While their forebears in ancient Greece had done some experimenting with non-water-based cleaning - it was there that the misnomer phrase “dry cleaning” first developed as a way to describe cleaning that was done without water - the Romans perfected the process, and remarkably their methods of cleaning remained the best known practices until the 1800s. The Romans found that a type of clay known as fuller’s earth was strikingly successful in removing oil, dirt and grease. Fuller’s earth would first be used as garments were being created, as it could be kneaded into textiles to draw out impurities. And then fuller’s earth would also be used once those textiles became dirty from wearing, when used in combination with ammonia.

We should all be thankful that a replacement solvent for ammonia was eventually found. Ammonia, in Roman times? It was derived from urine.

The modern history of dry cleaning began with a happy accident caused by a clumsy maidservant. At some point in the 1840s, French textile maker Jean-Baptiste Jolly’s maid accidentally knocked over Jolly’s kerosene lamp onto a linen tablecloth. Jolly was surprised to find that the linen in that spot became much cleaner. Jolly quickly turned this revelation into an extension of his business, and the firm of Jolly-Belin in Paris is historically credited as the first dry cleaning business, using kerosene as its primary cleaning material.

Inventors and industrialists all over Europe continued to experiment with kerosene- and gasoline-based cleaning through the remainder of the 19th century. But in much the same way that urine-based cleaning was not terribly ideal, a form of cleaning predicated on dousing clothes in flammable liquid was not all that ideal either. A history of fires and explosions in dry cleaning plants made that pretty clear.

Industrialists set about finding better alternatives, and American dry cleaner William Joseph Stoddard is credited as the first to develop a successful non-gasoline-based solvent in the 1920s. Cleaners soon settled on chlorine-based solvents, and found their best success with tetrachloroethylene, a compound comprised of carbon and chlorine atoms (molecular formula C2Cl4). Tetrachloroethylene was first discovered by Michael Faraday, one of the most prominent chemists in the history of science. It is also known as perchloroethylene, or “perc,” and to this day remains the primary solvent used by the vast majority of dry cleaners worldwide. Other competing solvents have been introduced in recent years, but none has proven demonstrably better or safer than perc.

The advantages of perc include being safe, non-flammable, fast, able to be repeatedly reused and recycled, and able to function in small, compact machines that are little different in size from a conventional home washing machine. Given that, could there someday be a dry cleaning machine in every home? Possibly. But given the twists, turns, and happy accidents that have spurred much of the evolution of the industry, it’s hard to predict just what the future will hold.