They didn’t offer one-hour service or extra starch in the collars, but the ancient Romans invented a system of dry cleaning that was not substantially improved upon for more than 2,000 years.
In Rome, the upper classes wore white toga’s, usually of wool and as white garments do to this day, they quickly picked up dirt, grease and stains. Romans were very particular about their appearances, but few Roman homes had anything approaching a laundry room so they were the first to send their laundry to a service.
The dry-cleaners of the day were known as fullers, which refers to the fuller’s earth that was used both in the production and cleaning of clothes.
Because of the size of the equipment they used, the sheer volume of garments that had to be cleaned and the number of workers required, the fullers were one of the biggest and richest businesses in any town or city, and those who owned them were among the more important and politically powerful businessmen of their time.
In Roman times, the most popular choice of cleaning solution was urine, which was collected in troughs or clay pots left at intersections. Fullers didn’t collect urine outside taverns though, the Romans quickly learned that while a night of hard drinking produces copious amounts of urine, it lacked nitrogen, a key chemical required in the cleaning process. You will be pleased to learn that dry cleaning has since evolved, and that urine has not been used in the industry for some time now!
The fullers served two important functions: they provided a means for cleaning garments, and the taxes they paid on the urine became an important source of income for emperors.
The fullers also played a role in finishing cloth for new garments but the bulk of their business was cleaning. Clothes were first soaked in a mixture of hot urine and water and stomped on like grapes, typically by young boys who were entering the trade. The clothes might be clean, but as you can imagine, they smelled somewhat less than fresh, so fuller’s earth was added to neutralize the smell and lift off grease and dirt.
Roman toga’s were often more than 20 feet long, so it took at least two men to wring one out, after which it was hung to dry. A comb or thistles were used to renew the nape of the fabric.
It was a surprisingly green technology and one that lasted until petroleum solvents began to be used in the 19th century.
This article was written by Nick Davison, of 2Busy2Clean Dry Cleaners in London.