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The stain game

Hudson Cooper - Columnist
Posted 11/25/20

Like almost everything in 2020, Thanksgiving will be different. To combat the pandemic, local governments are urging families to gather in smaller groups. Supermarkets are stocking up on 12 to 15 …

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The stain game


Like almost everything in 2020, Thanksgiving will be different. To combat the pandemic, local governments are urging families to gather in smaller groups. Supermarkets are stocking up on 12 to 15 pound turkeys to feed the smaller gatherings.

Many families will have zoom conferences so extended family members can feel united. But one thing will remain the same. Many drippings from juicy turkey meat, cranberry sauce, gravies and Aunt Ida's onion soup will find its way onto garments and antique tablecloths. Many of those items bear the dreaded words “Dry Clean Only.”

What exactly is dry cleaning? Most of us only know that you bring stained items to the cleaner leaving with just a ticket and blind faith that your garments will be safe. You return a few days later and retrieve your clothes all neatly hung on a hanger and encased in a plastic bag. Few of us have any knowledge about the dry cleaning process.

Calling it dry cleaning is slightly deceiving. It uses the word dry only because there is no water involved in the process. Instead a petroleum solvent is used to clean the garment. In fact, the dry cleaning solvent in the early days was actually gasoline or kerosine.

Most dry cleaners eventually used perchloroethylene as a solvent until it was suspected that the chemical compound was not good for your health. They developed safer solvents. Once the garment is immersed in the solvent, it is placed in an extractor that removes the chemicals and stores them to be reused.

Dry cleaning has been around for centuries. Some say the process goes back in time to ancient Rome. In fact, a dry cleaning establishment was found in the destroyed city of Pompeii buried in the lava flow from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. They used clay known as fuller's earth combined with ammonia and lye to remove sweat and dirt from garments.

Here is another historical fact although not for the squeamish. The ammonia was derived from urine collected from horses or in some cases scooped out of ceramic pots in public bath houses. So, in comparison maybe using perchloroethylene is not that bad.

When the dry-cleaning shop was unearthed in Pompeii scholars were puzzled by a partially destroyed inscription on the entrance door. Eventually an archeologist scholar, Frederick DeKalb from the Institute of Trivial Roman Knowledge was summoned to interpret the inscription.

Using lasers, x-ray machines and his trusted Commodore 64 computer, Professor DeKalb finally solved the mystery. His published thesis proclaimed that the inscription in Latin was “non tessera, nemo togram.” In English it translates into “No ticket, No toga” which is a concept still used today at your local dry cleaners.

The dry-cleaning process evolved over the years leading to a conflict over bragging rights to the invention of its current, urine free, process. France laid claim to it when in 1825 a guy named Jean Baptiste Jolly scolded his maid for letting his favorite shirt fall into a tub of turpentine. His tirade ended when he noticed that once it dried, the shirt was free of a previously stubborn stain. He then used the process to open the first dry cleaning establishment in Paris.

However, Jolly was not alone in claiming the invention of dry cleaning. An American named Thomas Jennings received a patent for dry cleaning in 1821. Besides beating Monsieur Jolly by 4 years, Jennings became the first African American to be granted a patent in the United States. He became a very wealthy man and was able to buy his family out of slavery and contribute to the abolitionist movement.

So, as you share your Thanksgiving meal with friends and family fear not the occasional drop of gravy on your favorite sweater. Do not get angry when your nephew accidentally dribbles some onion soup on your crocheted dress. A splash of cranberry sauce on your pants is not going to ruin your holiday. Most dry cleaners are open the next day.

If not, I suggest my remedy for stains. Proctor & Gamble makes a product called a “Tide To Go Stain Remover” stick. Quickly rub it on a stain and you can avoid a trip to the dry cleaners. Then add a quick spray of Febreze and as Monsieur Jolly might have proclaimed, “Voila.” because your garment is as good as new.


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