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The Improved Hand Laundry was located on Port Jefferson’s East Main Street. Proprietor Owen S. Clagett, standing in the center of the doorway, and his employees are pictured in this 1911 photograph taken in front of the store. The building still stands today. Photo from the Kenneth C. Brady Digital Archive

By Kenneth Brady

Once again, it was time for Mrs. George D. Lee of Port Jefferson to do the wash, an onerous household task that just would not go away.

According to a diary that chronicles life in her family from 1866 through 1886, Lee usually devoted the equivalent of a full day of labor per week to cleaning her clothes, as well as those of her husband, children and elderly father.

Laundering was a multistep process that typically involved making soap from tallow and lye or using a commercial product, chopping and carrying wood for the fire, and hauling and heating buckets of water. Using a washboard and tub, the dirt was scrubbed from the clothes, which were then rinsed with pails of fresh water, squeezed of liquid, hung outside to dry, starched, and ironed.

The Improved Hand Laundry was located on Port Jefferson’s East Main Street. Proprietor Owen S. Clagett, standing in the center of the doorway, and his employees are pictured in this 1911 photograph taken in front of the store. The building still stands today. Photo from the Kenneth C. Brady Digital Archive

She generally managed the wash herself, but at times paid laundresses to deal with the hard, heavy and hot work. Some of the washerwomen toiled right in Lee’s home while others took the laundry to their respective houses.

Competing with Port Jefferson’s washerwomen, so-called Chinese laundries first appeared in the village during the late 19th century.

Running a laundry demanded long hours and backbreaking manual labor, but it was an “option” for Chinese immigrants who faced discrimination, were short on capital, had limited English, and were kept out of most desirable careers.

Sanborn maps of Port Jefferson from 1891 through 1917, show Chinese laundries at various locations on today’s Main and East Main streets, while advertisements for some of these establishments appear in local newspapers and business directories.

Laundering became industrialized in Port Jefferson during the early twentieth century with the advent of the steam laundry.

In contrast to a Chinese laundry where the work was done by hand, a commercial steam laundry used a steam engine to drive its specialized machinery, enabling a plant to handle a large volume of business and to do so quickly and efficiently.

In 1907, Owen S. Clagett of Central Islip opened a steam laundry in the basement of Athena Hall (Theatre Three) on the west side of Port Jefferson’s Main Street, naming his company the Improved Hand Laundry.

The following year, as his business flourished, Clagett moved the laundry’s operations to larger quarters on what is now the village’s East Main Street.

Clagett served individuals, families and hotels in Port Jefferson and the environs, running a pickup and delivery route as far west as Old Field and east as Shoreham.

Owen S. Clagett, shown behind the wheel of the Improved Hand Laundry’s pickup and delivery truck, served customers as far west as Old Field and east as Shoreham. Photo from the Kenneth C. Brady Digital Archive

In a 1911 advertisement in the Port Jefferson Echo, Clagett urged readers to “Come, be an American!” and patronize his establishment, an apparent racist swipe at the proprietors of the village’s Chinese laundries who earlier had been harassed by a number of Port Jefferson’s “young rowdies.”

Clagett moved to Kentucky in 1917 and closed shop in the village, providing an opportunity for an experienced Port Jefferson laundryman to fill the void.

Alphonse Raynaud, who had worked briefly as the foreman at Clagett’s Athena Hall location, opened the Port Jefferson French Hand Laundry in 1909 within what is today’s Traders Cove Parking Lot on the south side of Arden Place.

A French laundry was perceived as offering services far superior to those of a Chinese laundry, such as its attention to lace, but the term “French laundry” was also racist code among some for a white-run operation.

Enjoying considerable success, Raynaud moved his business to within what is now the village’s Resident Parking Lot on the north side of Arden Place. There he established the Port Jefferson French Steam Laundry. The plant was later enlarged and modernized after Raynaud partnered with Walter Sword.

In the ensuing years, the company changed owners several times and had different names, dissolving in 1949 as the Community Steam Laundry of Port Jefferson, Inc. The former laundry building was later used by the Athens Wire Company and destroyed by fire on Oct. 20, 1953.

Many factors contributed to the decline of steam laundries, but foremost was the popularity of electric washing machines which ironically put laundry work back into the home where the village’s Mrs. Lee had faced the loathsome chore in 1866.

Kenneth Brady has served as the Port Jefferson Village Historian and president of the Port Jefferson Conservancy, as well as on the boards of the Suffolk County Historical Society, Greater Port Jefferson Arts Council and Port Jefferson Historical Society. He is a longtime resident of Port Jefferson.

A new chemical rating system will inform people using dry cleaners in Suffolk. File photo

Customers will soon have more information about how their clothes are being cleaned.

The Suffolk County Legislature recently approved a new law that will require dry cleaners to share information with customers about the types of chemical solvents they are using and the environmental effects of those solvents.

County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) had proposed the law, which passed on June 2. Under the new requirements, the county health department will categorize dry cleaning solvents, ranking “each chemical grouping based on both human and environmental impacts,” according to a press release from Hahn’s office.

From there, during the existing annual inspections for dry cleaners, county officials will provide the businesses with color-coded signs that “indicate the cleaning methods and solvents used by each individual shop.”

The dry cleaners would have to post the signs in their windows and behind their counters.

On the government side, the health department will also have a website — the address of which will be on the color-coded signs — with environmental and health information about different dry cleaning solvents and processes.

“This bill empowers consumers and allows them to make more informed decisions, which in the end is good for all of us,” Hahn said in a statement. “While it is common for consumers to read food ingredient lists and nutrition labels and to search out reviews for other products, most are hard-pressed to find the time to research details related to a myriad of dry cleaning solvents, figure out the exact solvent used by their cleaner and then investigate its potential impact on his or her self, family and environment.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) still has to sign the approved bill into law.

Hahn’s bill was related to a previous one she put before the Legislature, which was also approved in mid-April, to stop garment-cleaning businesses from using the term “organic” to describe their services, because there are no set criteria for its usage in consumer goods and services and could be misleading. The legislator has given the example of dry cleaning chemicals that are harmful to the environment but might be referred to as organic because they contain naturally occurring elements such as carbon.

“Organic in this context is a technical term, and does not mean chemical-free,” Beth Fiteni, owner of Green Inside and Out Consulting, an advocacy organization committed to empowering the public to find healthier alternatives to common toxins, said in a statement at the time the bill passed the Legislature. “This legislation in Suffolk County helps address possible confusion.”

That law prohibited dry cleaners from using the term to advertise their services, with fines between $500 and $1,000 for violating the rule.