The History of Dry CleaningDrycleaning is the process of washing fabrics with liquid other than water. Drycleaning solvents dissolve oils and fats which are not water soluble. These solvents do not swell natural fibres as does water, one of the major causes of shrinkage.
Archeological discoveries have revealed the existence of “drycleaners” in the Mycean Period (16-1200BC). However, modern cleaning was not known until the birth of the chemical industry in the 1800s which introduced such solvents as benzene (from petroleum), benzol (from coal tar), naptha and petrol.
Legend says drycleaning began in France in the 1840s with an accidental discovery that camphene turpentine spirits, a lamp fuel, had excellent cleansing powers. The accident involves a maid or quarreling lovers who tipped over a lamp onto a soiled table cloth. When the cloth dried, the soil was gone.
Spirits of turpentine had long been known as a good spotting agent for grease stains. In 1690 an anonymous writer said, “oil of turpentine will make rosin crumble away”. In 1716 a French book entitled “Secrets Concernant les Arts et Metiers” described a “special secret for removing grease and oil spots from silk stuff”. It said “One rubs the spots on the silk with the spirits of turpentine, this spirit evaporates and takes with it the oil in the spot”.
The transition among cleaners in the mid 1800s from the spot cleaning to total “drycleaning” was not rapid; at least not until the more enterprising leaders of the craft showed by their successes that all solvent immersion cleaning was indeed a new and profitable technique. Some of the incentives were:
  • Garments could be cleaned whole without dismembering them as was the custom in wet cleaning methods.
  • The time it took to perform the cleaning process was very much reduced, affording further savings in labour.
  • Fugitive colours and finishing agents were not affected or removed by solvent as they were with water.
  • Pressing or finishing operations were much easier to carry out.
All accounts credit the cleaning and dyeing firm of J. B. Jolly in Paris with being the leading proponent of the new solvent immersion system, a business that grew out of the dyeing establishment founded in 1794 by one M. Belin.
How long camphene or benzene remained as a drycleaning solvent is unknown, but a third kind of organic solvent became available in the late 1800s. It grew out of the great industrial developments which took place in the United States after Alfred Gesner's discovery in 1852 in Ontario, Canada, of a lamp fuel he called kerosene and derived from crude petroleum.
Later a “useless” by-product of kerosene refining called petrol found a small market among dyers and scourers in the United States who were just beginning to turn solvent immersion techniques introduced into Europe.
Petrol was the main solvent used in the United States in the early twentieth century. But petrol and other petroleum derivatives used in drycleaning wereDry cleaning in the early 20th century highly flammable and explosive. From 1921 to 1925 research was conducted in the United States and the National Institute of Dyers and Cleaners, now known as the International Fabricare Institute (IFI), adopted standards for a dry solvent which had a flash point of 100F.
The solvent was named Stoddard Solvent in honour of the Institute's President, W. J. Stoddard, who had been a prime mover in developing a safer solvent. This solvent is also known as white spirits in Australia and is the petroleum spirit used extensively until the development of synthetic solvents in the 1970s.
Perchloroethylene, or perc, is the principle synthetic solvent used by today's professional drycleaner. It is completely non-flammable and greatly helped the growth of drycleaning plants into well populated areas such as shopping centres and housing developments.
Most of the drycleaning plants in Australia use synthetic solvents (perc being the most popular) although some petroleum base solvents are still used.
Fluorocarbon type drycleaning solvent was introduced to Australia in the early 1990s but was outlawed in 1997.
Newer solvents being introduced into Australia include hydrocarbon and Greenearth and these are finding a loyal following amongst drycleaners.