Going to Pieces: A Detective Story

In the 1920s a mysterious scourge afflicted many city dwellers—newly washed laundry crumbling without explanation. Unmasking the culprit provided the first hint of a wider problem.

By Elisabeth Berry Drago | November 12, 2014
Detail of a burlap sack for H. Kohnstamm and Company’s Simplex Soap. When recently laundered clothes started to disintegrate in the early 20th century, angry customers turned to laundries, which in turn looked to soap manufacturers, such as Kohnstamm, for

Detail of a burlap sack for H. Kohnstamm and Company’s Simplex Soap. When recently laundered clothes started to disintegrate in the early 20th century, angry customers turned to laundries, which in turn looked to soap manufacturers, such as Kohnstamm, for answers.

Science History Institute

The fresh scent of air-dried laundry is something plenty of fabric softeners claim to capture. There’s just something special about the clean smell of linens that have been out in the sunshine. Imagine gathering up a load of soft, sun-warmed cotton sheets and taking them indoors to press with a hot iron. Now imagine those same sheets suddenly falling to pieces between your fingers, disintegrating at a touch!

This bizarre situation was a reality for many American homemakers and housekeepers around 1920, when an epidemic of “crumbling laundry” plagued the Northeast. Angry customers accused commercial laundries of spoiling their clothes, but the laundries were equally baffled. Unable to find a solution, these laundries turned to the company that produced their washing soaps and dyes: chemical experts H. Kohnstamm and Company.

CHF recently acquired a piece of this odd history in the form of a branded Simplex Soap bag. This burlap sack, once used for the mundane task of transporting cleaning supplies, has been framed and preserved. It bears the Kohnstamm logo and motto: Service through Chemistry. The company, founded by Joseph Kohnstamm in 1851, had long specialized in laundry supplies, particularly the vital “bluing” used in whitening fabric. Bluing used ultramarine pigments to “cool” the tone of white linens. Once made from the costly and semiprecious lapis lazuli stone, synthetic ultramarines were in wide use by 1830. The Kohnstamms manufactured ultramarine and other pigments as well as food colorings, dyes, and laundry soaps.

By 1920, when our mystery begins, business was good, and the emerging commercial laundry industry was booming. People were eager to be rid of the tedious and time-consuming chore of laundering clothes and linens at home. Unlike modern methods, which sanitize and brighten clothes in a single wash cycle, traditional laundering was a demanding task, relying on boiling water and grated soap or ash lye for treating stains. Clothes were scrubbed on washboards or stirred and beaten with sticks and plungers. The time and energy saved by sending laundry “out” to a commercial facility was substantial. Elizabeth Porter Wyckoff, writing for the New York Times in 1921, described the relief felt by many families: “You don’t need to read the planks in the Socialist platform . . . to realize what it must mean to the woman with a lot of children and a corresponding lot of housework to get the worst part of the wash done for a little over a dollar. It comes home the same night . . . and everything is boiled good and clean.” The most typical laundry service was “wet wash” or “bag wash.” Clothes and linens were washed and returned damp, ready to be hung out to dry. For an extra charge fabrics could be dried in the laundry’s industrial-sized hot rollers and presses, but most people preferred to use the free “drying service” provided by the outdoors.

It was this common combination—wet wash and air dry—that sparked the perplexing mystery of the crumbling laundry. Cotton clothes that were returned wet fell to pieces after being air-dried in the sun, leaving customers furious and laundries confused. The public blamed commercial laundries, which in turn appealed to the Kohnstamm laboratories for help. Scraps of the destroyed fabric analyzed at the labs’ “Chamber of Horrors,” a collection of the worst laundry accidents, revealed a shocking truth. Sulfuric acid had eaten the clothes away! Searching for the origins of these harmful corrosives, Kohnstamm scientists performed tests of laundry equipment and washing chemicals at sites across the Northeast. But no sulfuric acid could be found.

Curiously, they discovered that fabrics commercially washed and dried—without exposure to the outdoors—remained intact and unharmed. Line-dried fabrics were being damaged not by chemical exposure at the laundry but by chemical exposure from the air.

After that, it didn’t take long to find the culprit. During the first quarter of the 20th century air pollution—much of it from coal smoke—was at record heights. By 1910 more than 1,300 tons of sulfuric acid were being released daily into the atmosphere of New York City. When wet cloth was exposed in the laboratory to coal smoke, then sunlight and heat, it broke down rapidly, matching exactly the processes first observed by customers. Kohnstamm scientists determined that this precise reaction was caused by the interaction of water, ultraviolet rays, and the sulfur dioxide found in coal smoke. These three factors reacted to form sulfuric acids on the surface of the fabrics, leaving them weakened and damaged. Unexpectedly, this laundry dilemma proved to be the canary in the coal mine, pointing the way to a much larger and more urgent environmental problem.

The solution—clean-air protections and stricter standards for industry—would be a long time coming. While individual cities passed some regulations against smoke pollution, including Los Angeles in 1945, the wider American public would have to wait for the advent of the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 and the Clean Air Act of 1963 for relief.

The struggle for clean air continues today, almost a century after the mystery of the crumbling laundry was solved. Smog events and coal-smoke pollution—increasingly affecting industrial centers in the developing world—remain a major concern for environmentalists and public-health advocates. As recently as 2013 major smog haze events over China and Southeast Asia prompted the Chinese government to announce a “green” initiative that will shift energy production from coal to renewable sources. Changing habits isn’t easy. But cleaner air will mean so much more than fresh laundry.