Steam laundries and why they got a bad press

Today on the blog we are going to be looking into steam laundries, both their use in the 19th century as well as how they relate to us today. Now, I know what you’re thinking, what is a steam laundry and why should I care? Well, in answer to that I would pitch that looking into the steam laundry industry from the late 1800s can allow us to draw some parallels on issues relevant to us in 2021.

The invention of the steam engine catapulted a lot of technologies into existence during the industrial revolution – including steam trains, various locomotives and the commercial steam laundry. Generally, the steam engine replaced other forms of energy, to become the primary source of power throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century. A communal approach to washing clothes was not a new concept to the 1800s. In fact, this was common practice throughout history. Washhouses were scattered across Europe, harnessing water from natural rivers and springs to feed into the gazebo-like buildings – which only had a roof and no walls.

An Italian washhouse during the turn of the 20th century. – “Sanremo – Women of the populace at the wash house”. Image: Wikimedia Commons.  

Those privileged enough to afford maids would hand their dirty laundry off to them. According to “Mrs Beeton’s Guide to Household Management” of 1861, private laundry practice consisted of a wide variety of processes. In some cases, whole washhouses were attached to the kitchen for easy access. The women would use two basins of water – one cold to wring out initial stains and one hot to scald the clothing before it went through the laborious process of being dried and ironed. In other cases, whole rooms were dedicated to ironing, drying, and mangling. Mrs. Beeton stressed that more delicate fabrics were washed and treated at home regardless of access to a communal laundromat. Clearly, this was a tedious process in comparison to the modern method of chucking laundry into the washing machine and pressing a few buttons

However, the development of the steam engine in the 1800s revolutionized laundry permanently, as it proved far more time efficient and cost effective. Steam engines were used to drive washing machines, while boilers were used to heat water as well as run large steam presses. Each task was divided and divvied up so that each employee would have an individual task. This ensured that a larger volume of washing was completed each day than one could do in a personal washhouse. Specialized machines were developed to aid the specific processes of washing, drying, bleaching and mangling – among others – making the laundromats even more time and cost efficient. This was due to the high levels of pollution in cities during the industrial revolution – leaving one’s clothes and sheets often smelling of smoke. It was for efficiency, ease and accessibility that steam laundries rose in popularity.

19th Century steam laundry. 1883 engraving of a steam laundry in Berlin, Germany. Image: Sciencephotolibrary.

Interestingly, steam laundries became central to women’s rights issues within certain contexts. This was due to the high number of female employees within these laundromats, which were very commonly owned by men who were unsympathetic to the needs of female workers. As washhouses began to generate a bit of money, male owners of these establishments began to make themselves known as ‘laundrymen’. This was a gendered term to differentiate themselves from the female workers, as well as add a bit of prestige to their occupation. They generally made the argument that laundry was not an exclusively female concern, as this new machinery introduced into the washhouses needed a “male brain” to keep it organised and running. Of course, the women who had been burdened with the task of laundry for generations upon generations accused these laundrymen of not knowing nearly as much as the women employees, yet were reaping more benefits (Wang 2002). Furthermore, a wide variety of important questions surrounding gender issues were raised as a result of these commercial laundries, some resounding even as far as present day.

Today, doing the washing is largely a task which is expected of women as opposed to men. When watching a commercial about anything to do with laundry – whether it’s detergent, stain remover, or washing machines – the people represented are almost always women. It is still a societal expectation that women, especially mothers, have to take up the maternal role of caring for the household fabrics.

Similar to modern advertisements, laundry powder manufacturers in the 19th century also targeted their advertisements towards women. Image, top: Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 28.05.1862: 1; bottom: Lyttelton Times 02.02.1865: 2.

The steam powered laundromat continued to rise in popularity until the invention of electric washing machines proved more accessible and efficient as they could be installed in private homes. Ironically, these machines that undermined the steam laundry industry were modeled off the very machines promoted by laundrymen. The drive belts were replaced by more efficient electric motors mounted directly onto the machines, small enough to fit in a private dwelling.

What now seems like outdated technology was once cutting edge! Image: Otago Daily Times 20.05.1949: 2. 

The earliest steam laundry that we have been able to find reference to in New Zealand, was the ‘Otago Steam Laundry’, which opened around 1876 in the North-East Valley, sporting nine rooms and washing machines all the way from San Francisco. Interestingly, a breach of women’s rights was evident in New Zealand’s steams laundries as it was in Europe. A newspaper clipping reads that ‘George Millar, of the Otago Steam Laundry, was proceeded against this morning for a breach of the Employment of Female Act, by causing his woman to work in his laundry on Saturday afternoons.


May 1881 saw the opening of a steam laundry in Lyttelton by Mr. W. Holmes. The laundry sported a steam drying room, folding room, as well as an engine, boilers, tubes and mangles (a device used to remove excess water/ironing fabrics).

An 1885 survey plan of Lyttelton. The property of Holmes is highlighted in red. Image: LINZ, 1885.

This is a survey plan of Holmes’ land from 20th of July 1901, 18 years after the image prior. Evidently some buildings have been added to the land since 1885. The little black squares off to the side most likely represent the small cottages on the plot, while the longer square probably represents the steam laundry. Image: LINZ, 1901.

Mr Holmes owned the laundry. His wife, Mrs Homes, and two girls were employed to work within the Steam Laundry. Here we see evidence of a continuation of issues seen earlier in Europe and North America between male owners and female employees. The services of the laundry included  ‘starching, ironing and mangling’. Starching clothing was used to add crispness and structure to linen, as well as a higher resistance to creasing or stains. Mrs. Holmes expresses her enthusiasm for Bergers Starch in particular, as she states in a newspaper clipping that it has a ‘better finish and gloss than any starch I have ever used.

This advertisement from The Lyttleton Times shows a job advertisement for three women to work in the Lyttleton Steam Laundry. Image: Lyttelton Times 07/01/1890: 1. 

Advertisement for Bergers Starch. Image: Press 17/01/1890: 8. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Homes passed a short time after the opening of his laundromat – in 1897. The business was left to his wife, Catherine Holmes, who seemed keen to sell the land as soon as she could. However, it seemed like a struggle to sell the business along with the land accompanying it, as we see various advertisements for the selling of the business beginning early 1898. In 1906, part of the property was sold to a Lyttelton railway signalman, Charles Philip Ore Kempthorne. It is not clear if the steam laundry continued to operate after Mr. Homes’ death, although there are no advertisements for its services in newspapers of the time.

Mrs. Holmes numerous attempts to sell the property!. From top to bottom: Lyttelton Times 18/04/1898: 8; 14/01/1899: 1; 17/01/1900: 1; 19/04/1901: 8; 19/03/1904: 11. 

As you might expect, we became interested in Holmes’ Steam Laundry because we did some work at the site. Most of the material that we found was not directly linked to the steam laundry business but just general domestic objects. This material was probably deposited by Holmes and his family, or by any tenants of the other cottages located on the site, and was very typical of the types of objects that every household in 19th century Christchurch and Lyttelton would have owned (with one exception- eagle eyed readers of this blog may recognise a familiar artefact that inspired its own blog post in the image below)

A selection of artefacts found at the site. These were probably used by the Holmes’ and provide an insight into their lives. Image: C. Watson.

However, one object stuck out as an obvious find from the long-gone laundromat. This was the remains of a boiler, probably a vertical boiler. A vertical boiler is used to produce a low, steady stream of steam, as water is boiled inside its large vertical cylindrical shell.

The boiler! Though I am not an expert on the workings of a vertical boiler, after comparing with a diagram these holes seem to either be a fire hole, man hole or hand hole. Image: M. Hickey.

For those of you who, like me, weren’t exactly familiar with Vertical Boilers, here’s a diagram. Simple Vertical Boiler, Construction, Working And List of Parts. Image:  MechanicalJungle. 

Unfortunately the quality of this photography isn’t the greatest, but a similar boiler can be seen in the background of the photogram. Image: New Zealand Herald 26/02/1931: 5.

The boiler as it was uncovered in our trench! Image: M. Hickey.

The vertical boiler sitting in the ground before it was dug up. Image: M. Hickey.

It is fascinating how looking into the Holmes’ Steam Laundry can allow us to reflect on the parallels between the 19th century and today. Though many may think that a Lyttleton laundromat which shut down business in 1897 is a topic that is irrelevant to society today, when looking deeper I believe that it can tell us a lot about the foundations in which New Zealand was built. Feminist issues migrated to New Zealand with the British, often coming to a head with a laundromat as a backdrop. Looking into the steam laundry also reminds us that people in the early stages of New Zealand’s development were not so different from us today often facing similar issues.

Rosie Smith


LINZ., 1885. DP 3829, Canterbury. Landonline.

LINZ., 1901. DP 1677, Canterbury. Landonline.

Wang, Joan. “Gender, Race and Civilization: The Competition between American Power Laundries and Chinese Steam Laundries, 1870s – 1920s.” American Studies International 40, no. 1 (2002): 52-73. Accessed September 4, 2021.