The history of dry cleaning

Professional stain removers started work around the year 1800, when turpentine was used to clean cloth. However, turpentine was too expensive to fill a whole basin with and clean the dirty garments in it. In the early 19th century France, whale oil lamps were replaced by turpentine oil lamps, making turpentine relatively cheap and allowing it to be used for cleaning clothes. A French dye-works owner named Jolly Bellin became aware of the fact and in 1825, he opened a dry cleaning workshop in Saint-Denis, near Paris. He soaked the clothes in turpentine oil and removed the stains with a brush. Soon, people started talking about “the French wash”.

That is how the first stain removers worked in the 1820s.

One of the legends about how dry cleaning was discovered goes like this: Bellini’s apprentice knocked a turpentine oil lamp over, so what was inside was spilled on a uniform jacket on the table. After the turpentine had dried, the jacket was clean in the places turpentine had been spilled on. This had led to the idea to soak clothes entirely in turpentine oil.

In 1850s, turpentine oil was extensively used for cleaning in England as well.

In 1842, benzene manufactured from coal tar became a wide-spread solvent. It was cheaper, evaporated faster and had better cleaning qualities. The name of the service changed as the solvent became more commonly used – and now we talk about dry cleaning.

The people employed in the industry soon noticed that benzene posed a health hazard, and that is why petrol was chosen for cleaning in the 1860s. At the same time, a dry cleaning machine was being constructed and improved, with the descendants of Jolly Bellin in Paris at the forefront.

Dry cleaning in Berlin, 1878.

However, a series of explosions kept taking place in dry cleaning workshops. When the matter was investigated, it was found that the explosions were a result of electrical charges, a by-product of cleaning. To be precise, woollen garments have a tendency to create electrical charges when rubbing against other materials. A special product to the added to petro was developed, so as to avoid fires.

The industry’s attempts to discover a non-flammable cleaning agent led them to carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. Hence, an era of non-combustible solvents began in 1923. The necessary dry cleaning machines of a closed construction were built and constantly improved. Since 1952, the shape of the machine has remained unchanged, and nothing revolutionary has happened to its main functions. The only thing updated is the machine’s conformity to environmental requirements.

A dry cleaning machine in 1890 and 1930.

In 1985, the search for an alternative to solvents stumbled upon hydrocarbon.

In the 1990s, an American engineer called Maffei patented a dry cleaning machine, which uses carbon dioxide to clean, but the world is still waiting for a breakthrough. CO2 is a colourless and odourless gas found in air, which means that using it to clean would ecologically be a very sound idea.

So it stands, that today, the solvents mainly used in the dry cleaning industry are perchloroethylene and hydrocarbon, and the markings P and F can be found on the maintenance labels accordingly.

Dry cleaning is done in closed machines and according to strict laws on environmental as well as occupational health and safety.