Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Washing Clothes across cultures

While we were in Paris, my family and I went to visit the Parc Asterix. I'm not sure how many of you are familiar with the character of Asterix, but he's quite famous in many countries - a little Gaul from the time of the Roman Empire who loves to cause the Romans trouble along with his friend Obelix. We had fun, and saw lots of statues (and some costumed characters) of the folks from the comic books doing various things like riding in boats etc. One of the things they had was a statue of a Gauloise (woman from Gaul) washing clothes in a river. This was the moment when I had to explain washing clothes in a river to my kids.

We don't exactly pound our laundry on a rock. But there are still quite a few people in the world who do.

I took this as one example of a big difference in technologies surrounding the washing of clothes. However, what impressed me more was the more subtle difference surrounding the washing of clothes that I encountered in France and Switzerland.

Nobody had dryers. When asked, they would say, "A drying machine? Why?"

Well, in fact, it's a good question. I guess you could say that we Americans like to do everything as quickly and easily as possible and never mind the expense of energy or money. Yes, there are times when it rains. In France, there could be rain on any given day, since they don't have the unnatural division of rainy season and dry season that we have here in California.

The interesting thing from a TTYU point of view is the way that different values have been placed on these machines. Everyone has a washer; it's natural (that's another issue, but it's not being called into question in the US/Europe contrast). But what does it mean to have a dryer, or not to have a dryer?

In the US, it's surprising (at least!) to hear that someone doesn't have a dryer. In some cases, the lack of a dryer is associated with poverty. There is no such association (no surprise) in Europe. Having a dryer there is seen as a waste of money, bad for the environment (this view has become strong recently), and damaging to the clothes. Contrast this with Japan, where we had a dryer, but where our washer was so gentle it hardly washed things - and this was because it was believed that a stronger washer would damage the clothes!

So, for those world builders out there - it's valuable to have striking differences in technology, etc. but also good to explore how subtler differences in attitude lead to differences in what people use, like these washing machines. Just because a technology is available doesn't mean that people will want to use it, so consider why it is that people make the technology choices they do.

It's worth thinking about.


  1. The lack of drying machines is probably much more prevalent outside of the US than even you're giving credit for. ;) In both Korea and Singapore, dryers are uncommon. The school I taught at in Korea gave me a washer and a refrigerator, and that was that. I would string up a very long piece of raffia ribbon across my living room (actually doubled back to give me twice the space), and used that as a clothes line to dry everything.

    In Singapore, most families don't have dryers but use bamboo poles (or the equivalent) to hang their laundry outside to dry (which, given the frequency it rains here, may not get all that dry for some time). The pole holders have actually been changing over time as the original pole holder (a short length of pipe) is being phased out to prevent the breeding of mosquitoes. (Rainwater gets trapped in the pipe, which allows mosquitoes to breed; some of the local mosquitoes carry dengue and other tropical fever diseases that are potentially fatal. I've suffered through this twice already.)

    My wife and I do have a dryer, but we've changed how we use it. The key problem with dryers here (as elsewhere) is that the darned things use tremendous amounts of electricity. Singapore's utility company provides on the back page of the bill graphs showing the individual's consumption of electricity, natural gas and water compared to the national averages. When we used our dryer to dry all of our clothes, our electricity usage was about double that of the national average. But now my wife and I will air dry almost all of our clothes first (except for underwear) to the point where they're barely damp and then throw them into the dryer. As a result, our electric bill is much, much lower. That is why the dryer has not caught on outside of America; it's not poverty, it's saving money. :)

  2. JDsg, thanks so much for your comment! You give some excellent examples - and I love the interesting detail of the poles that need to be phased out to inhibit mosquitoes. (Sorry about the fever; that must have been awful!) I hope you didn't feel that I implied that lack of a dryer meant poverty - not at all. Only that I have heard people say that for them a dryer was symbolic of escaping from poverty, and that lack of one was seen as a sign thereof. I have a dryer but try to use it as little as possible, for exactly the reason you mention. What an interesting stat about Singapore utilities! Always a pleasure to have you comment.

  3. consider why it is that people make the technology choices they do.

    Part of that reason is because technology is designed to fulfill a specific need although, of course, other needs might also be fulfilled as well. To keep somewhat on topic, my brother- and sister-in-law took their kids recently to the island of Langkawi, Malaysia for vacation. One of the pictures they took was posted on Facebook; they asked us (friends and family) to identify the machine they had photographed. My guess had been a clothes wringer, the old-style machine that wrung out clothes between two rollers, with the excess water dripping into a tub underneath. Good guess, except that the wringer didn't work with clothes... it worked on raw rubber. The rubber was like wet clothes in that it had excess moisture that needed to be squeezed out before it could be processed further. Same basic technology, but a different need fulfilled.

    Thanks for your comment regarding the fever. Yes, the first time was especially awful, to the point where I considered the possibility that I might not survive that first night. The fever was that high. Fortunately, the body does develop some immunity to these viruses over time, so the second fever wasn't nearly as bad. I may have actually even gotten the virus a third time (a visible sign of the illness is a rash around one's toes), but I think my immunity was good enough that I didn't even feel sick. (Fortunately, these types of fevers are rare enough that a tourist has an extremely small chance of getting sick; I had been here almost four years before I had the first fever and the second fever was three years after that. So don't let that stop you from come visiting us here in Singapore for your next vacation. ;) )

  4. Wow, some very interesting anecdotes. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Lol ... ok i'm portuguese. I don't have a dryer, and really, why should I? my clothes get dry after a few hours outside.

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Shannon.

    Acrisalves, I'm there with you. I hung out my washing this afternoon and it dried in an hour. It was a pretty hot dry day, so I was glad not to have to heat up my house by running the dryer!

  7. Actually, dryers have been becoming more common in Europe in the past fifteen years or so, but they're still not nearly as ubiquitous as in the US and particularly older people often go without. The environmental concerns were very strong in the 1980s, but have been lessening as low energy dryers and other household appliances became available. There is also the very common belief that laundry dried outside smells better.

    I have a dryer and would never want to go without (I hated having to put up with stiff air-dried laundry as a student), but then my parents were among the early adopters of dryers, so I'm used to it.

    You comment about the weak Japanese washing machine made me smile, because my mother always complains about those weak American washing machines that barely wash and don't clean anything. The main difference is that German machines use hot water (up to 90°C) and US machines only use lukewarm water. I don't use the 90°C setting (called "cooking laundry") with very rare exceptions, because it's not good for the clothing and not necessary, but I regularly use the 60°C setting. What is more, we also separate our laundry in "white laundry" (underwear, towels, bedsheets in light colours and of sturdier fabric) and "dark laundry" (socks, stockings, clothes and towels in strong colours), whereby white laundry is usually washed at a higher temperature (60°C or even 90°C), while dark laundry gets lower temperatures (30 or 40°C) to preserve the colours. Meanwhile, Americans are far more likely to put white and dark laundry into the same machine, which always drove my mother crazy.

  8. I live in Spain, and driers are rare here, too. Sometimes people hang their clothes out of the window in apartment on clotheslines that criss-cross airshafts. More commonly, they hang them off special fold-up racks indoors. The racks come in all varieties, from big ones sort of like folding tables to small ones you can hang off your radiator.

    At first I didn't like them, but I've learned how to used them well, and I appreciate how gentle they are on clothes.

    It's so dry here in Madrid that on a hot summer day, jeans will be ready to wear within hours of being hung up. Plus they cool off the house a little.

  9. In defense of dryers - towels are much fluffier coming out of the machines than off of lines, they're necessary for home dry cleaning & when you need to wash & wear the following day in cold and/or wet weather.
    Moving onto the real topic, the technology of ordinary life in the future is fascinating. I remember when male characters were described as using depilatories rather than shaving. Much cooler sounding than "smeared Nair For Men on their faces". It's easy to imagine how water will be in shorter supply than energy off-world. Is a sonic shower feasible? Would it be as disliked as the packaged, moist paper towels are now (by our troops in Southwest Asia)?

  10. Thanks for your contributions too, mount-oregano. I can imagine all the hanging clothes!

    Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I'm not actually intending to bad-mouth dryers with this discussion, lol! When I want a fluffy towel it's my go-to device. I just think it's interesting to consider the different ways that different cultures view very common objects that we take for granted. Your discussion of technology of ordinary life in the future has given me an interesting idea for a post, so thank you for that!

  11. When I visit the US (I live in the UK), my clothes really suffer in the washer and drier my friend has. They age far more during those visits than they do at home. The washing machine is much harsher, taking off small buttons and beads. The drier damages the surface of the clothes, leaving them with a rough feeling in time (and nothing beaded can go in there, or it won't come out in one piece).

    Living there permanently would mean having to buy new clothes far more often.

  12. Interesting point, Polenth. I have no doubt you are right. It's for this reason that I now have a front-load washer rather than an agitating washer - and I am quite careful to keep delicate garments out of the drier!

  13. Cora, I just realized I didn't respond to you! I think you have a very good point about water temperature. In the US we tend to worry that hot water will a. make our clothes shrink or b. bleach out colors. We do tend to separate loads by lights and darks, but generally both types are done at a lower temperature. I might actually try doing my laundry at hotter temperatures and see what happens! Thanks for your comment.

  14. Actually which kinds of clothes go into a load depends entirely on who taught you to sort laundry. I'm totally American and my mom sorted clothes by color: darks and lights, to preserve colors and keep the lights from turning colors. My dad sorted clothes by weight. All the heavy stuff together, all the light stuff together, to preserve the thinner, more delicate clothes from getting beat up.

    I sort by both: lightweight lights, heavy lights, lightweight darks, and heavy darks, then bedding all separate. And there are plenty of American washers that will use hot water if you turn it to that setting, but I only run whites and rugs and such on hot, so it'll get sanitized and clean. Everything else, I pretty much run cold 'cause colors are less likely to bleed or fade.

  15. Yes, Juliette. Also the shrinking thing. Sweaters and jeans do NOT do good on warm or hot in American washers. Unless you've just dropped a couple of sizes. :D

  16. Hello

    I live in the UK, so I'm kind of like the Portuguese lady, I put it out... then it rains so I have to stuff it in the dryer. 10 minutes in the dryer does make thing easier to iron... sometimes I squeak by without having to iron them at all.

    What you say about worlds rings true though... most of my brain has lived in mine since I was about 4 but since I've been trying to write it down I've had to do some serious thinking about how it actually works!



  17. Megs, I aspire to sort my laundry into four buckets! Actually we often have so much pink and red to wash that I sort those separately.

    MT McGuire, thanks for your comment! I've learned quite a lot more about laundry across the world from writing this post. My focus, however, is the one about worlds. Small details can be a really good way to make a fictional world seem real.

  18. I'm an American living in Normandy France and I wish we had a dryer!!!! Our clothes rarely dry because sun is rare and apartments are damp. As a result clothes have a wet gym locker smell that seems to be impossible to remove. Washers take twice as long and the detergents don't clean. I'm not sure its really better for the environment or more energy efficient. As for the "fresh smell", good old Ohio wind, or nice flowery salty air smells good, but Normand wind stinks.

    1. I feel for you on the dryer, but I do love Normandy! I hope you find things to love there in spite of the laundry. I had a similar problem with my laundry in Japan, where it's humid so often. Thanks for the comment!