The laundromat, a hub of modern life
Access to clean clothing has become a given for most people living in a modern, developed world, especially since it’s not unusual to have a washing machine, or even a dryer, installed in one’s home.
But for those living in big cities, where there is often not enough space to place machines in the home, the laundromat is a staple of life, just like the grocery store. It is a place where people go to refresh themselves, to outsource cleaning duties, and to help put their lives and their weeks in order.
Laundromats are also a fascinating window into local life. Like a modern day cultural anthropological study, the laundromat is a view onto a neighborhood and its people. Without them, we would lose an important aspect of community.
The history of the laundromat
The creation of the first laundromat can be traced back to the early twentieth century in America, however collective public laundry systems actually date back to Roman times. Ancient public laundry houses, known as Roman Fullonica, were early examples of communal laundry services.
Although the evolution of clothes washing systems expanded over the centuries to include large-scale laundry machines capable of wringing excessive soap and water from fabrics, the task of doing one’s laundry remained a small scale and largely hand-operated affair.
Large-scale machines were expensive and potentially hazardous, and the number of people who had access to these kinds of services was limited.
By the 1700’s, the average homemaker would walk to a local riverbank and use a scrub brush and soap, or even a little bit of ash, to help fabrics to feel like new. The other option was to use a shared communal washbasin, such as in the 1800’s, when a copper pot used to boil laundry over a fire was passed around the community.
The birth of the modern laundromat
The adaptation of shared communal washbasins into public washhouses was the shift that finally established contemporary spaces dedicated to laundry.
By the 1900’s, the large-scale machines of earlier decades had been converted into early prototype washing machines.
In 1851, James King invented a washing machine that used a drum to remove excess water, and in 1858, Hamilton Smith created a similar patented model. The primary difference between the two was that Hamilton Smith’s machine rotated. Soon after, the race to design the most effective washing machine prototype came to a close when British designer Thomas Bradford created a more developed model, but ultimately it was Alva Fisher who invented the first efficient electric domestic washing machine to most closely resembles our machines of today.
It was not until the 1930’s, when, during the Great Depression, the “Wash-a-teria” laundromat was first established in Fort Worth, Texas, that the cult of the laundromat officially began. This was the beginning of an entirely new era in America, and the laundromat would maintain popularity until the 1950’s, when modern conveniences would become more accessible in the home.
These days, the laundromat is more of a novelty for some, while remaining a necessity for many. Let’s take a look at some interesting and surprising laundromats from around the world.
Disco while you wash
Though it might not be an actual disco, Barcelona’s famed eco-friendly Splash laundromat is designed to make visitors feel that doing laundry can extend far beyond routine activity. In fact, Splash even makes self-service laundry seem stylish and fun.
According to its website, Splash was opened in 2012, by Argentinian businessman, Roberto Haboba Gleizer. Splash has two locations, as well as an offshoot sister company, Fresh.
With its neon signs, and illustrations affixed to the walls in a play on modern art installation, Splash is famous for good reasons. Catering to a hip, partying population, Splash draws in a youthful crowd.
Even if it is merely a laundromat, Splash has developed a sort of cult following, to the point where there are even home videos of the sparkling launderette posted online. Take a virtual tour of the laundromat, and you can hear the beat of a club-inspired soundtrack and imagine hanging out with your friends while doing your wash.
Though Splash may resemble a nightclub, it is not in fact an official partying spot. However, with that said, Splash has been known to play nightclub for the day, hosting a DJ set as visitors washed their clothes and danced, yet another reason why it has never lived down its reputation as one of the most interesting laundromats in the world.
Wash and dine
If Splash is a cult space designated to provide laundry services to Barcelona’s “in-crowd,” then Antwerp’s Wasbar takes the concept of culturally sophisticated laundry systems to a whole new level.
With its chic style and effortless approach to self-service laundry services, Wasbar boasts multiple locations, professing that “the only reason our mothers want us to be afraid of the laundry is because they fear that someday they won’t feel necessary.” At least this is what is written in the “Advice” section of the Wasbar website, along with a checklist to help enhance the laundry-going experience.
Wasbar looks more like a Parisian brasserie than a neighborhood laundromat. For a fee of less than ten euros, you can get your laundry going while sitting down to lunch on Wasbar’s outdoor patio, or sit perched along their bustling bar.
Don’t forget to top your dry cycle off with a ham and cheese sandwich or a bowl of comforting chicken soup. And who knows? You might even make a new friend on the way!
Refresh your mind while you clean your socks
Transitioning away from elegant interiors and decadent breakfasts, laundromats also present an opportunity for pop-up entertainment as a way to help pass the (drying) time.
Though stand-up comedy shows at launderettes have recently become commonplace, San Francisco’s Brain Wash Café and Laundromat, opened in 1989, was known as a pioneer on this front. Created by Susan Schindler, and later owned by Jeff Zalles, Brain Wash Café was one of the most famous of its kind.
A multi-purpose space that provided self-service laundry services, a restaurant, nightclub, open mic nights, and stand-up comedy shows, Brain Wash Café once helped nurture local talent and foster a relaxed communal spirit. Unfortunately, the club/launderette closed its doors in 2017.
Though The Brain Wash Café may no longer be in existence, its ethos of cleaning minds and hearts with laughter, while simultaneously giving customers the chance to wash their shorts, has caught on in the comedy world. As a result, there are both “clean” and “dirty” comedy shows (no pun intended) popping up regularly throughout the US.
Wash done the Texan way
For those hankering for a burger and a beer while their rinse cycle is completed, Harvey Washbangers Laundromat in College Station, Texas, is the perfect place to satisfy your cravings.
Maintaining the possibility that communal gathering while laundering can be pleasurable and fun, Washbangers, has made its name as one of the most popular dual-purpose laundromats of its kind.
With a motto of “eat, drink, and do laundry,” Harvey Washbangers caters to locals who aspire to dine merrily while still getting their chores done. Listed on bon appétit’s most interesting laundrobars list, Washbangers offers culinary delights that exceed the standard fare. With items such as Cajun burgers, salads, homemade chili, beer on tap, and merchandised t-shirts to commemorate the experience, an afternoon hanging out at Washbangers is an experience to remember.
With a write-up in Travel and Leisure magazine’s feature on “America’s Strangest Restaurants,” Washbangers certainly belongs in the pantheon of the most interesting laundromats in the world.
And if by chance you should get distracted while enjoying your meal, Washbangers has a light board that illuminates to let customers know that their cycle is complete. What a convenient and appealing way to do laundry—a far cry from the wash houses of olden times. Frito Pie Dog, anyone?
Proust, madeleines, and the delicate cycle
Writer and nostalgist Marcel Proust once said, “Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” Though Proust may have known nothing of the solitary laundromat experience, the creators of Café Laundromat understood the value of reading when they established their laundro-library, Café Laundromat, in Oslo, Norway.
Café Laundromat provides the perfect environment for multitasking in the way that most avid readers prefer. As described on Café Laundromat’s website, this space boasts a small library of more than 4,000 books, ranging from comic books to classic titles, with the aim to “feed our guests’ hungry minds.”
With its brightly colored laundry machines, carpeted floors, and cozy lamp-lit reading nooks, Café Laundromat invites customers to relax into this multipurpose communal space. There is also a full menu offering everything, from international breakfasts, to simple afternoon fare, and even pizza.
Café Laundromat is certainly a long way off from the club atmosphere of Splash, and from the jubilant delight of Washbangers, but it too has an unusual experience to offer customers in search of a more rarified laundry-going experience.
Bigger can be better
Take a flight from Oslo to the American Midwest, and encounter a very different kind of laundry-going experience. Here, you will find the polar opposite of Café Laundromat.
Leave it to America to give rise to the biggest, most activity-filled, ecologically minded laundry metropolis. Awarded a prize in 1983 for “the world’s largest laundromat,” The World’s Largest Laundromat lives up to its title in sheer scope and capability. This launderette, which is in Berwyn, Illinois, refers to itself as “the flagship store of the industry.”
Boasting 301 machines (comprised of 144 dryers and 157 washers), which manage to conserve energy thanks to a 36-panel solar hot water system, this business can run for hours without having to switch on its boiler. The system enables The World’s Largest Laundromat to save money, which in turn keeps prices stable, consequently helping to support the community.
Since for many low-income families a trip to the laundromat is a group activity, The World’s Largest Laundromat helps support community spirit by fulfilling family entertainment needs for people of all ages and interests.
With a charming motto that states, “We take care of you, while you take care of your laundry,” The World’s Largest Laundromat offers video games, 16-inch flat screen TV’s, an aviary filled with finches, and toy giveaways. They also host special nights where free pizza is on offer, and morning celebrations accompanied by complimentary doughnuts. Communal tables give kids a space to do their homework together, and when they’re finished, they can happily return to playing video games.
With signs written in multiple languages to help reflect the diversity of this community, and immigration information sessions for those preparing for citizenship interviews, The World’s Largest Laundromat proves to be not only the biggest and most impactful of its kind, but also its generous efforts are a reminder that this laundromat truly operates with a big and open heart.
The luxury cycle
The Laundry Café, a Philadelphia-based laundromat with an experiential upgrade in mind, pulls out all the stops when it comes to creating a community environment that appeals to customers from all walks of life.
Established with the intention of giving back to the community, The Laundry Café hosts frequent events to help bring the neighborhood together. From free blood pressure checks, to health information sessions, and job fairs, this wash-a-teria truly lives up to the concept of laundromats as makeshift civic centers.
With five locations throughout the area, The Laundry Café is designed to provide services that make customers feel at ease. With its clean, oversized machines, free Wi-Fi, flat screen TVs, soda and vending machines, here you will find everything you need, as well as some fun luxuries that you don’t. One such example is massage chairs that are perched in every location, giving visitors a chance to relax and recover while they wait for their dry cycle to conclude.
Pit stop and wash
Sometimes one of the best ways to explore a new place is to check out the local laundromat. There, you will get a sense of an area and of its people.
One such example of an out-of-the-way laundromat that is offbeat yet illuminating, is the Tumbleweed Laundry, in Marfa, Texas.
Marfa, Texas, is a place renowned for its sparse, nowhere-town aesthetic. Home to the works of some of America’s greatest living artists, most notoriously, visual artist Donald Judd, Marfa has chic restaurants, galleries, cultural events, and artist residencies galore.
Found off the beaten track, Tumbleweed Laundry is a pit stop for locals and travelers passing through Marfa. With a quaint coffee shop and laundromat combined, Tumbleweed Laundry is the perfect spot to replenish your clean clothing stock while you drink a cup of joe.
It is thanks to Frama (an anagram for Marfa) café, which is directly adjoining Tumbleweed, that this laundry-coffee shop combo is complete. Come here to indulge in some homemade ice cream and desserts, and to reflect on art, the meaning of life, and the spaciousness of the beautiful surrounding desert landscape. This is living, the Marfa way.
The Icelandic way
Another self-service laundry spot to successfully align aesthetics with practicality is Café Laundromat, found in the heart of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.
Travelers will agree that there is such a thing as an Icelandic mystique. For a country that boasts exquisitely beautiful natural resources, such as hot springs, and more than thirty active volcanoes, Iceland’s landscape is its greatest attraction.
The Café Laundromat is a beautiful lamp lit retreat. An offshoot of the original flagship location in Copenhagen, Café Laundromat’s aesthetic utilizes the best of Scandinavian design to create an environment that is both pleasing and useful for visitors who wish to enjoy themselves while doing the wash.
Café Laundromat has everything you need, and more. With board games to help pass the time, as well as newspapers, magazines, and a kid’s playroom in the basement, Café Laundromat is yet another example of a sleek and stylish laundry hideaway.
With an extensive menu that includes brunch, sandwiches, craft beers, and wine, visitors will not feel that their time here has gone to waste.
A new Spin on the wash
It isn’t surprising that the Pacific Northwest, known for its nature-loving urban lifestyle, is home to Spin, an eco-friendly “laundry lounge,” that boasts two locations. Situated in Portland, Oregon, the Spin Laundry Lounge aims to reimagine the laundry-going experience.
With an ethos centered upon sustainability, the Spin Laundry Lounge posted their 2016 “sustainability report” on their website as proof of the company’s total dedication. Among this list of eco accomplishments, are efforts to donate linens and lone lost socks abandoned in the laundromat. The report also speaks about how the company offsets their utilities through the Pacific Power’s Blue Sky program, as well as the installation of LED light bulbs within their buildings.
Spin Laundry Lounge’s Electrolux washing machines are equipped with an automatic water savings system. This process weighs laundry placed inside the machine, allowing for precise water measurements. Electrolux washing machines are able to wash clothes effectively, while simultaneously saving water.
Both locations of the Spin Laundry Lounge offer free Wi-Fi, snacks and drinks, old-school arcade games, and cashless payment methods. Customers can even send a text message to their machine, which will in turn let them know how much time they have left on their cycle.
Spin also hosts pop-up art shows and music events, as well as an “Eco Friendly Soap Shop,” selling items such as high-end lavender scented detergent. It’s these thoughtful touches that make Spin Laundry Lounge a prime example of how laundromats around the world are bringing people together and diversifying the laundry-going experience.
Laundry soap and cross-cultural exchange
Hong Kong has long been an international meeting point for expats and locals who share a complex heritage. This confluence is part of what makes Hong Kong such an interesting place, and why the Coffee and Laundry laundromat has been featured in several international articles. After all, it is a noteworthy destination spot for tourists and locals alike.
The concept of a laundromat is relatively new in this part of the world. Self-service washhouses did not appear in Hong Kong until 2014, and so the creation of a laundromat/coffee shop was somewhat revolutionary when it first appeared.
Located in Sheung Wan, a busy district in northwest Hong Kong where people do not have space for washers and dryers in their homes, this charming little self-service laundromat is a sweet little retreat amidst bustling city life.
With ten washers and dryers, artfully constructed wood-paneled walls, and a charming menu on offer, Coffee and Laundry was created with aesthetics and pleasure in mind.
With a menu that offers pastries, such as artisanal moon cakes, coffee drinks, fresh fruit sodas, as well as charming to-go cups (including adorable hand-painted sleeves) and bespoke cold brew bottles, Coffee and Laundry is a petite haven that might even be mistaken for laundry heaven.
Cashless laundry systems
Thanks to the world of cashless systems, doing laundry is becoming less of a chore.
Whereas in the past, there was a need to hoard quarters in order to prepare for one’s weekly trip to the laundromat, the advent of cashless laundry card solutions has increased convenience when it comes to public washing machines.
Many laundromats are adopting convenient card reader systems to help their businesses evolve with the times. These devices enable customers to pay directly with their credit or debit cards, or digital wallets. These digital devices are the most efficient method of payment, as they don’t even involve a laundry card.
Cashless laundry systems allow the washing to get done without having to worry about having enough change in your wallet. Now the solitary laundry-going hours can be left to more important things.
Just the beginning
It’s clear that the sky is the limit when it comes to amenities that laundromats can provide. Cultural hubs by nature, it is thanks to entrepreneurs and grassroots activists from around the world, and their innovative ways of thinking, that laundromats have the power to extend beyond a place to simply complete one’s chores. As is evident in these stories, they are constantly being reinvented and adapted to fit our modern world.
They are, as they once were in olden times, meeting houses, spaces to commune with one’s neighbors and friends. They are places to learn and enjoy, to give, and to grow. They can unite and inspire. It is exciting to imagine what lies ahead for the world of wash-a-terias, and how laundromats might change in the future. One of these evolutionary aspects will certainly involve cashless payments devices, which are already proving to be necessary advancements in the field. As for the rest, it looks like we will have to wait and see!
To learn more about turning your laundromat business cashless, contact us for more information.