Laundry. At its most basic, washing clothes involves water and a scrubbing action, with soap as an added bonus. Yet, our ancestors would not recognize the process of doing laundry in 21st century America. We have incredibly sophisticated computerized machines and a dizzying array of laundry detergents and other products to get our clothes clean. The evolution of washing technology from washboards to top-loaders, and the social implications of that process, is richly documented in the Joe and Lil Shapiro collection of laundry ephemera (MS.2014.002) now available for use at the John Hay Library.
The Joe and Lil Shapiro collection of laundry ephemera consists of ephemera that depict the history, artifacts and materials used to do laundry from 1800 to 2010. Most of the items in this collection were produced by companies to advertise laundry products such as bluing, clotheslines and clothespins, dyes, soaps, starch, washboards and washing machines. The advertisements depict not only the variety and evolution of laundry tools and techniques but also attitudes towards women, women’s work, and people of African-American and Chinese descent. The collection as a whole raises the topic of laundry from something to be avoided to something that tells a fascinating story about American history, technology, chemistry, social expectations, race relations, the status of women, and the power of advertising. Who knew the laundry hamper could be so informative?
This collection was compiled by Joseph S. Shapiro, Brown class of 1957, and his wife, Lilian Shapiro. Joseph Shapiro was the owner of the Lundermac Company, Inc., which managed and supplied self-service laundries in apartments, condos and dormitories across New England. Lundermac was founded in 1940 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, by Lilian Shapiro’s father, Gerard Wolfe. Joseph Shapiro learned the business from Wolfe, beginning as a salesperson in 1961, and rose to become President of the company in 1988. Joe and Lil collected anything and everything related to the process of doing laundry including washing machines, washboards, wash paddles, soap boxes, etc. Only the paper-based ephemeral materials were donated to Brown University.