There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Eight

Thomas L Jennings (1791 – 1859)

Is there anything more annoying than spilling something down your clothes?

On reflection, plenty but perhaps because my manual dexterity isn’t quite what it used to be, it seems to happen to me with increasing regularity. I’m forever dabbing and rubbing items of clothing, trying to get a food stain out. Depending on the combination of foodstuff and fabric, some stains seem immoveable and the only thing for it is a trip to the dry cleaners.

On such a trip, I pondered; someone must have invented dry cleaning. Who was it?

Step forward, Thomas Jennings.

Born in 1791, a free African American, this was to be an important distinction as his story unfolds, Thomas became an accomplished tailor. So good were his skills that people came from miles around either to have their clothes altered or bespoke apparel made by him. Soon he had amassed sufficient funds to open his own store on New York’s Chapel Street.

People were no less clumsy with their drinks and food then than they are today, but they didn’t have the option of popping down to the dry cleaners.

Their choice was either to get the stain out as best they could and continue wearing the garment or to consign it to the bin, an expensive option. Whilst replacing soiled clothing with new was grist to the mill of Thomas’ tailoring business, he didn’t like to see garments that he had worked on for hours on end discarded before they had reached the end of their natural life.

So, Thomas began to experiment on ways to clean clothing, deploying a range of different solutions and cleaning agents on a wide array of fabrics. Eventually, he hit on a winning combination. After extensive testing, in 1820, he applied for a patent for a process he called “dry scouring”, the forerunner of dry cleaning.

Thomas was awarded a patent (US Patent 3306x) on March 3, 1821, making him the first African American to hold one.

The law at the time did not perceive slaves as citizens of the United States and so they were unable to swear the oath necessary to stake their claim to their invention. This legal impediment did not impact Thomas. He was a free man, after all, and he was able to benefit from his ingenuity.

And benefit he did.

Dry scouring became an extremely popular way to clean badly soiled clothing and Thomas made his fortune. But, alas, we know very little about the particulars of the method Thomas had developed because the US Patent office was destroyed by fire in 1836 and its records went with it. In 1825, Jolly Belin opened what is thought to have been the first commercial dry-cleaning laundry, in Paris, using turpentine.

Perhaps this was Thomas’ process.

The problem with turpentine was that it made the clothes smell but it was not until the 1850s that petroleum-based substances were used to dry clean clothes. These substances were highly inflammable and there were often by-laws in place prohibiting dry cleaning premises to operate in densely populated areas. Clothes were often brought into a shop in the town and then sent to a laundry out in the sticks to be cleaned.

Less dangerous chlorinated solvents were only used after the First World War.

Thomas used his wealth to purchase the freedom of those relatives of his who were still enslaved and then fund the abolitionist movement in the North-Eastern states, becoming, in 1831, assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, held in Philadelphia.

His daughter, Elizabeth, was a chip of the old block.

She was an activist on behalf of the abolitionist movement, like her father, and one day whilst on a New York City streetcar on her way to church she was ordered off. She sued the operators, Third Avenue Railroad Company, on the grounds of discrimination and in 1855 the Brooklyn City Circuit found in her favour.

The very next day, the company desegregated their buses. Her attorney, Charles Arthur, went on to become US President in 1881.

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