Wishy Washy

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   April 23, 2024

The ancient activity of laundering has woven itself into our culture in many ways.

As an example, there was once a popular catchphrase “no tickee, no washee” which derived from the time when most of the laundry businesses in the U.S., were owned and operated by immigrants from China. Originally it meant that, in order to pick up your clean laundry, you must present the receipt you received when you gave it in. [Such mockery of one ethnic group’s way of speaking English is of course today taboo.]

It all may have started in California at the time of the 1849 Gold Rush. Most of the aspiring miners who came were men. The women, who traditionally did the household washing, were left behind. Chinese immigrants, who may have had little success in the mines, discovered this need for laundry service – a type of work disdained by most other non-miners.

But, until machines came along to do the washing and drying, it was a familiar spectacle to see rows of laundry hung out to dry on some kind of line. This was commemorated in children’s nursery rhymes, such as the rather nasty one in which:

“The Maid was in the garden,
hanging out the clothes –
Along came a blackbird
and pecked off her nose.”

There was also the expression about “washing your dirty linen in public,” which originated in the days when “linen” generally meant underwear. So, this connoted revealing unpleasant personal truths normally kept private.

And laundry went to war. In the British Army in the early days of World War II, when Germany had a defensive line of fortifications called the “Siegfried Line” – they sang:

“Have you any dirty washing, mother dear?
“We’re going to hang out the washing
“We’re going to hang out the washing
on the Siegfried Line –
If the Siegfried Line’s still there!”

At about that same time, I was five, and living in my mother’s hometown of Toronto, Canada, where I spent two years of my childhood. I have a clear memory of what now seems a very odd procedure, which took place periodically in my grandparents’ apartment. When the Chinese laundryman came, he and my Anglo-Jewish grandmother would sit down together, cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the main front room, with piles of laundry going and coming between them. There these two very different people would go over each item to be washed, and list it on some kind of printed form. I’m not sure how much language they had in common, but it was apparently enough for them to compile a list. (Yes, there really were laundry lists, and no doubt there still are – but the term “laundry list” has more recently been adopted in colloquial English to characterize, half-jocularly, any detailed or
lengthy listing.)

But with the development of the “Laundromat,” beginning in 1934, the residents of a whole neighborhood could have their laundry washed and dried by machines at one central location. Privacy was sacrificed for convenience and low cost.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” has the Major General
boast that:

“I can write a washing bill
in Babylonic Cuneiform
And give you every detail
of Caractacus’ uniform.”

Meanwhile, wars were actually being fought, and in at least one sector of World War II, laundry played an essential part in espionage. In 1944, as the time approached for the long-awaited Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe, it was of unusual importance to the potential invaders to keep track of German troop movements in the most vulnerable coastal areas.

Allied Intelligence were in touch with French operatives who had been specially trained to set themselves up as local laundrymen, catering specifically to German military units. The Germans were notoriously concerned about the condition of their attire. When units were moved, they made sure to collect any of their finished laundry which hadn’t yet come back. And they left forwarding addresses for any which was yet to be delivered. This was obviously a boon to the Allies, especially when it showed that their attempts to deceive the Germans about their planned invasion sites had been successful. 

Let me conclude with a true personal anecdote: A very sweet old lady of my acquaintance sometimes tended to get things a little mixed up. Once, when we were discussing laundry systems, I started to ask if she could remember that old expression, “No tickee. . .” to which she quickly responded – (obviously mis-remembering a popular song about “Little Boxes”) – “Oh yes! – No tickey, no tackey”!  


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