It All Comes Out in the Wash

"This is a good place to be in a bad mood," writes Chiori Santiago about a recent trip she made to a San Francisco laundromat. The daunting chore of doing the laundry has dampened people's spirits even longer than there's been soap. But Santiago was in for a pleasant surprise. She bypassed the laundromat on the corner — a purgatory of leaky machines, bad coffee and dog-eared magazines — and hauled her bags across the bay to the Brain Wash, a different kind of washhouse.

"Before long my dirty clothes are sloshing away, and I stroll across the floor to the Brain Wash Cafe, where I can buy a latte and settle down with a copy of the free neighborhood weekly," she writes. "A few minutes later, a musician wedges himself into the strip of space between the roomful of washers and the coffee bar, plugs in his microphone and launches into loud, earnest lyrics accompanied by the bass thrum of dryer cylinders and the soprano whir of gyrating washers. By the time I stuff my clothes into one of the big dryers, I'm dancing across the concrete floor and wishing I had more dirty clothes."

Americans, whether they do their laundry at home or in self-service establishments, wash a whopping 200 billion pounds of clothing every year, and manufacturers of detergents, stain removers, and washers and dryers spend huge sums to get their products to that insatiable market. Yet in many parts of the world, laundry is still done in the nearest river, stream or lake; the clothes are pounded clean on the rocks and spread in the sun to bleach and dry.

Santiago traces the history of doing the wash from ancient Egyptian wall paintings showing men doing the scrubbing, twisting and folding, to the modern era automatic washer. She explains the nitty-gritty of soaps and detergents and how they fight dirt at the microscopic level, and visits two research laboratories to learn about products still in the pipeline. Says one researcher, "Those of us who do the laundry don't get enough credit for the technical decisions we make every day. Some very serious science goes into doing the laundry."

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