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The night the MEN rolled up their sleeves and did the laundry in 1946

by Claudia Vroland (2020-07-11)

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Laundry may have been considered a woman's job in the less enlightened days of the 1940s, but these black and white photographs show men too had to roll up their sleeves if they wanted clean cuffs.

Indeed some did more than that, stripping to waist for comfort in the heat and the steam of the public laundry in Holborn, central London.

And the laundry even held a 'men only' night - perhaps to make sure no delicate sensibilities were offended by the sight of sweaty half-naked washermen.

Men At Work: this public laundry in Holborn, in London which doubled as a public baths, invited photographers in to capture a Men Only night one evening in 1946

The men, wearing smart trousers and one even in a silk waistcoat, have clearly come straight from work with their clothes which they had to scrub by hand 

Sweat drips from the foreheads of the men, young and old, as they submerge their garments in near-boiling water and dunk them in and out with long wooden poles

Evening photographs taken in a public laundry on Endell Street during a  5pm to 8pm 'Men's Night' in 1946, capture bachelors scrubbing, ironing and even stitching their clothes. 

In evocative images which capture the sweat and the steam of laundry rooms before home electric appliances became commonplace, the men can be seen stripped to their undershirts, lifting and dunking their clothes into huge drums of near-boiling water.

There are scrubbing boards at which the chaps toil by hand to get out tough stains.

And one man is photographed taking his clothes out of an early spin-dryer which looks technologically just half a step up from a salad spinner.

Elbow grease: These chaps are really putting their backs into the work.

Within married couples in the 1940s more women would do the laundry than men, but even bachelors need clean clothes

This forerunner of the modern tumble dryer looks pretty basic by 2019 standards but the basic principle is the same

Smoking Hot: The heat in the steamy laundry was so great some of the washerman stripped to the waist - but just because this was the building for washing and drying clothes, it didn't stop them sparking up an indoor cigarette

Even the irons are obviously from a bygone era: no inbuilt steam functions or electric cords to be seen, these are irons in every sense of the word, and the men are studiously pressing their work shirts to make sure they are presentable in the days to come.

Others can be seen hanging their clothes onto drying racks which then slot into wall lockers to warm and dry the garments.

The heat and the steam of the commercial laundry on Endell Street come vividly to life in the 60-year-old photographs, which include one of a man wiping his brow sitting shirtless by a pail.

These drying rails slotted back into wall-mounted cabinets where hot dry air sped up the drying process for the clothes

Fashion of the Forties: neither the trusty cravat, nor trousers so high they sit half way up the ribcage, are common sights in London today.

Not even in Shoreditch

When irons were irons: the men heated the solid metal blocks and used the wooden handles to avoid burning themselves

This man looks to be trying to get through his ironing at tremendous speed.

The laundry on Endell Street was open to men only from 5pm to 8pm 

Make Do And Mend: darning, sewing, and repairing clothes were all far more common in 1946, when Britain was still exhausted from six years of war and subject to rationing

And, of course, plenty of them are smoking cigarettes - just what you want in the room your clothes are being washed and dried.

Home appliances like washing machines and tumble driers were already starting to spread through America in the 1940s but given the privations of wartime it was not until the late 1950s and into the 1960s that demand for public laundries like these reduced in the UK.

Of course in 1946, many of these men would have been recently demobbed soldiers returned from service in recently liberated Europe or North Africa, and would have had years of having to wash and press their uniforms for fear of a dressing-down from an angry Sergeant Major.  

The men arrived for the male-only laundry evening straight from work, paid their entry fee to use their facility, and stored their overcoats and jackets in lockers before washing their clothes

Launderettes, even the modern coin-operated electrically powered kind, are a less and less common sight on Britain's streets. 

In the last two decades there has been a decline to around 3000 nationally, driven by rapidly rising utility costs, rent increases, and the ongoing decrease in the price of domestic washing machines. 

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