The vision of the laundry owners

Back in 1917, when a strike was looming, the old Seattle Laundry Owners’ Club was formulated quickly. But the compulsion of male laundry owners to stick together was more complex than many histories credit. As early as the year (1914) Seattle Empire opened, there was a "Seattle Laundry Men's Club". It met every Friday evening at Third Avenue's Lyon Building, as well as holding regular banquets, dances and 'evenings' to raise its members' social profiles. On January 1, 1914, the club even hired a professional secretary.

This was one William S. Thyng, who would retain his office into the late 1920s. As pacific Laundryman duly noted Thyng was not himself a laundry man - but he became the owners' delegated spokesperson. He also took the initiative in emphasizing their common interests (in 1914, for instance, Thyng attempted to set up " an employment agency though which the laundrymen may procure first-class help".

In 1997, Dr. Arwen P. Mohun addressed the culture of the male laundry boss, with a perceptive essay she entitled 'Laundrymen Construct Their World', published in the Society for the History of Technology's journal "Culture & Technology".

"Beginning in the late 19th century," she writes, "...the gendered connotations attached to laundry technology and to its users are a pervasive theme in the laundrymen's discourse."

"Confronted with the persistent notion that laundry was 'women's work', they (the laundrymen) presented their own complex arguments suggesting that...laundries as technological systems were essentially masculine; that they required masculine ways of thinking about and organizing technology in order to function properly; that, in fact, women unsexed themselves by claiming more than a small degree of authority in this realm."

Such determination to control perceptions presupposed control of all female workers - and Seattle laundrymen were no exception. Their owners’ cartel smarted from their 1917 loss to the laundry girls.

In 1918, they reformulated their group, as the "Seattle Laundrymens’ Club". This 'new' organization promoted itself further by taking an office in downtown's Arctic Building. Their constant aim was to present the owners — not workers — as their industry’s face.

"American laundry owners," notes Dr. Mohun, "...employed the strategy of rendering their workers invisible. In their depiction, machines carried out the process."

To this end, Seattle's Laundry Owners' Club had one constant ally. This was the regional trade journal called Pacific Laundryman, which began the same year that Keeney built the Seattle Empire.

On almost every page of every issue and, especially in editorials, it took the owners' part against upstart laundry workers. The bulk of Pacific Laundryman was comprised of ads heralding technological miracles (a special soap, a new collar-shaping machine) and by gossipy details of local laundrymen's lives and "doings".

For owners representing their business as a synthesis of modern technologies, Pacific Laundryman provided a vital prop.

By 1924, the Seattle's Owners Club even modernized their moniker. With larger offices in the Securities Building, they had became the "Seattle Laundryowners’ Association." Under this name, they forged an alliance with a statewide group, the Washington Laundry Owners.

In the parallel universe of workers and their representatives, Dave Beck continued to amass power of his own. In 1925, he became Secretary of Seattle’s Joint Council of Teamsters — and proved instrumental in preventing a drivers' strike that spring.

That May, negotiations began between Locals 566, 43, 40 and the Laundry Owners’ Association. These negotiations would eat up almost nine months and involve much more than merely renewing the unions’ agreement.

For the owners, led by John Hagen - who now owned the Seattle Empire - wanted revenge for the loss in 1917. Determined to assert total control over their industry, they saw this moment as their chance to crush the troublesome unions.

Hagen was not alone in seeing that prospect as insuring the future; Seattle's laundry "men" swore defiance against the "laundry girls".


on to Seattle laundries make national waves    

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