Toxic Heritage

Collaborative research

Social & Environmental History of Dry Cleaning

By on August 13, 2020

This collaborative project of Elizabeth Kryder-Reid (co-PI), Owen J. Dwyer (co-PI), Gabe Filippelli, and Jeff Wilson was funded by the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute.

Explore these presentations of our research results:

  • Dirty Laundry for CHAT (Contemporary and HIstorical Archaeology in Theory) 2020 Blue Bird Fest

This project investigates the social and environmental history of dry cleaning in Indianapolis, and uses digital humanities tools to tell the story in publicly accessible ways. Specifically, we are interested in the environmental and social implications of changing textile cleaning practices across home-based laundry, domestic help, laundresses, and commercial laundries in Indianapolis. The goal is to understand the history of an industry that continues to have adverse environmental and health consequences and that speaks to the structural and environmental racism that has created disparate health impacts on low income, communities of color, and other marginalized people in this urban area. The study also investigates the social history of dry cleaning as a mass consumer service simultaneously producing antithetical promises of convenience and cleanliness, along with hazardous workplaces and toxic waste. As such, we are interested in the advertising, architecture, and rhetoric of dry cleaning, as well as the chemical signatures of its contaminants.

Deering Cleaners, 3838 N. Illinois Street, Indianapolis, IN

We are also keenly aware that the disparate impacts of the toxicity produced by the warehouse or bulk commercial processing plants located in certain areas of the city are indicative of the environmental racism that has characterized urban areas through the U.S. (Bullard 2018). This characteristic dynamic of mass consumerism i.e., the apparent disassociation between consumer choices and workers’ well-being, healthy places and poisonous environments – is one of the quotidian factors contributing to the stubborn longevity of environmental racism as a socio-environmental phenomenon (Price 2006).

Missouri Steam Washer advertisement, 1884

The goal of the project is to create knowledge that illuminates the history of environmental harm in the city and shares that knowledge in ways that are accessible and promote understand, invoke empathy, and encourage action.

The project is significant because since the early twentieth-century, chemical-based textile cleaning, commonly known as dry cleaning, has presented major health hazards, particularly in urban environments. These chemical treatments had significant health impacts on workers and those living in proximity during their operations (Vaughan et al. 1997, Zielus et al. 1989). Furthermore, prior to environmental regulations, the chemicals were often dumped directly on the property, creating a legacy of contaminated soil often percolating to create an underground plume of chemicals that is very difficult to track and can migrate to streams or compromise drinking water wells (EPA). The history of dry cleaning, to the extent that it is publicly disseminated, is often told in the history of industrial chemicals (Doherty 2000, Lohman 2002, Morrison 2003) or in the context of Environmental Protection Agency regulations and site status (US Commission on Civil Rights 2016). There have been social histories of laundry more broadly (Mohun 1999), but they do not address the environmental impact of textile cleaning or the ramifications for affected communities and workers. Manuals for both household laundry and industrial operations document the range of chemicals employed (Balderston 1902, DeArmond 1950), while the introduction in the 1930s of perchloroethylene (PERC), a carcinogen, amplified the health impacts for both workers and nearby residents exposed to the fluids and fumes used in the process and to those exposed to contaminated soil and water from the waste (Lohman 2002).  

TImeline for dry cleaning solvents,

This social and environmental history of dry cleaning has relevance locally and nationally. There are more than 30,000 dry cleaning operations in the U.S. and about 85% use PERC as the primary cleaning solvent (EPA 2016). While most dry cleaners use less than 140 gallons of PERC per year, the cumulative impact is significant, and the legacy of past waste management has left a swath of sites across the city leaching chemicals into the soil and ground water. In Indianapolis, for example, dry cleaning sites are identified as contributing to point source pollution in Site 0153, a superfund-eligible site spanning much of the near west side of the city including the Riverside neighborhood. A significant proportion of Indianapolis’ drinking water comes from large-scale wells in and around the city, and any contamination of those wells can endanger water supplies and sicken residents. Indianapolis also boasts one of the largest dry cleaning superfund sites in the US, near the intersection of Keystone and Fall Creek. Furthermore, 2020 is the deadline to eliminate PERC-based cleaners co-located with residential buildings, but it is still permitted and pervasive in businesses located in residential neighborhoods. This project addresses, therefore, both a long-standing history and pressing contemporary concern.

2013 Fox 59 story about Tuchman Cleaners that had spilled dangerous chemicals that contaminated the soil and groundwater in Indianapolis.

The project is also significant because of its collaborative, interdisciplinary approach, combining the disparate data and methodologies from history, archaeology, earth science, GIS, and cultural geography as part of the emerging environmental humanities movement. Through archival and documentary research, particularly the Indianapolis Business Directory, local newspapers, census data, Sanborn Maps, and Baist Atlas maps, we (Kryder-Reid and Dwyer) propose to map the history of the dry cleaning industry in Indianapolis, locating specific dry cleaning businesses within the geographic and interpreting them within social contexts of the city’s urban history. We will place that history within the broader context of city planning and policy (eg. zoning, permitting, etc.) and within the cultural practices and discourses related to notions of cleanliness, professionalism, and labor and the underlying structures of race, class, and gender. Specifically, we will research print advertisements from local newspapers to document marketing images and their attendant messages, and examine the trade publication literature to gauge how the industry reacted to growing environmental concern and regulation. In addition, we are drawing on the earth sciences expertise of Dr. Filippelli to integrate the scientific data of the chemicals and their health consequences.