Back to school supplies included laundry mailing boxes for many college-bound students in the early twentieth century. The reusable mailing containers provided a convenient way to deal with a time-consuming cleaning job. Using the mail also saved on cost because shipping grubby clothes home to mother could be cheaper than a professional cleaner. From the 1910s into the 1960s, mailing laundry was an attractive option for anyone without the time, means, or resources to do the chore themselves. It suited undergraduates, summer campers, military personnel, and others.
Types of containers varied, but they all needed to be made of durable materials; able to withstand repeated opening, closing, and sealing; and be of a manageable size. The metal version in the National Postal Museum collection meets those criteria. The light-weight box measures 6 ½ inches deep by 19 ¾ inches long and 12 ¼ inches wide. Ready for multiple trips, the mailing label and postage could be slipped into a small frame on the lid, which itself could be secured and released from the box many times with the buckle and strapping.
Another form of laundry box construction was of a cardboard box with a canvas encasing. The July 1953 Official Postal Guide cautioned and advised on packing clothes in both of these types of containers:
Laundry case of fiber construction, and metal cases to a lesser extent, are frequently damaged due to lightweight construction and air space contained therein, and address cards are occasionally lost with the result that the case goes to the dead Parcel Post Branch. Light fiber cases should be boxed to insure arrival in good condition. A canvas-covered case with straps around both ends and lengthwise seems to carry satisfactorily, provided the address card is secured in the flanged label holder by metal clasps fastened on the inside of the case of by other suitable means. An address holder similar to that used on trunks and suitcases, with a second address inside the case is suggested.
Reversible address cards made for easy reuse, but could cause some confusion. Postal officials continually warned that all recycled address labels had to be clear of old postage stamps or endorsements.
Dirty laundry is an inevitable part of life, but dealing with it by using the mail doesn’t seem the most readily apparent solution. The advent of Parcel Post Service in 1913 introduced standardized rates that were affordable and increased the allowable mailing weight for packages. Proving extremely popular with postal customers, the Parcel Post Service grew even more usable as the weight limits and rates improved in quick succession. Students at Yale University were early adopters, according to a June 1914 New York Times article that recounted, “In the Spring increasing business was done in the parcel post section when students found they could send home their laundry and get it returned at less than they would have to pay for their laundry here. They quickly found out that they could get their clothing, books, and room furnishings, except furniture, delivered by parcel post for less cost than by express.” While clearing out their dormitories in June, the students flooded the post office with a mail volume equal to the rest of the entire year for the city.
The Wellesley, Massachusetts, post office estimated in 1924 that the college students in town received ten times the average amount of mail. In the first two weeks of the school term, one-third of the 252 arriving packages included laundry cases. Parcels of clean, pressed clothes often included other treats for homesick students. Regulations for parcel post required any letters or cards included in the package to carry first-class postage, but there was ample latitude for adding baked goods, candies, and more. Certainly such bonus items made mailing laundry that much sweeter, but the sender had to make sure to secure the extras or all the laundering would have been for naught.
Over the century, new equipment and resources reduced the onerous tasks of washing, drying, and pressing garments. Mothers no longer required the help of hired-hands and laundry day became a one-person job with improved, automated washing machines, detergents, and synthetic fabrics. The labor transformation led some students to take care of themselves and travelers found the new laundromats introduced in the 1930s came in handy. More people could fit laundry chores into their lives. At the same time, fewer people could fit much of their wardrobe into a mailing container. With more clothes in the closet and better washing equipment at hand, exchanging laundry by the post had all but vanished by the 1970s.
For further reading
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Graham, Richard B. “College Days: Mailing Cases for Dirty Laundry.” Linn’s Stamp News (January 19, 1998) 18-19.
Mohun, Arwen P. Steam Laundries. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Straight, David. “Parcel Post Gets It Clean.” The Brookman Times Vol. 13/2nd Ed (Early Winter 2006) 36-37.
“Swamped by Yale Baggage, University Post Office Taxed by Students’ Use of Parcel Post.” New York Times (June 12, 1914) 22.
“Uncle Sam, Laundryman.” U.S. Official Postal Guide Ser. 4, Vol. 2, No. 11 (May 1923) 11-12.
U.S. Official Postal Guide Monthly Supplement Ser. 4, Vol. 10, No. 2 (September 1930) 16.
U.S. Official Postal Guide Part I Ser. 6, Vol. 5, No. 1 (July 1953) 65.
Warner, Patricia Campbell. “Washed Again Today, The Skin Was Gone From My Hands: Doing The Laundry In Women's Colleges, 1840-1890.” Dress 30 (2003) 38-47.
“Wellesley Students Receive Many Letters.” Christian Science Monitor (February 20, 1924) 4.
Written by Lynn Heidelbaugh