The History of Dry Cleaning
Nowadays dry cleaning seems to be one of the most common things to do when one of our precious garments is dirty. The history of dry cleaning, however, dates back to the Mycenaean Civilisation (around 1600 B.C.), where ancient dry cleaners supposedly used absorbent earth and powdered meal to draw various kinds of dirt such as sweat, stains and odour from clothing. As time passed, liquid solvents gained the upper hand and the history of dry cleaning took its place.
Back in the day, people used to reach for chemical substitutes as cleaners (e.g. naphtha, benzene, even grated potatoes) instead of water-based ones, to prevent their garments from shrinkage and warpage. It is said that in 1825, a Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Jolly made an innovative discovery when his maid accidentally spilled turpentine on a table cloth, which subsequently became cleaner. Jolly took his chance and rendered dry cleaning services to the public which he then called “nettoyage a sec” – a French equivalent to the term dry cleaning. Shortly afterwards, in 1857, dry cleaning had been introduced to the UK eventually. Despite the fact that Jolly was accredited with the discovery of dry cleaning, it has actually been recorded that turpentine had already been used for spot cleaning since 1720.
Step-by-step the chemical composition of solvents used for dry cleaning had been improved as petroleum-based ones were highly flammable and thus majorly dangerous (at some point, it even resulted in the government regulating dry cleaners). The initially used turpentine was soon replaced by white spirit and after World War I by chlorinated solvents as they had the chemical property of being less flammable and improved cleaning power. Eventually a solvent called perchloroethylene (also referred to as PERC) turned out to be the most effective but at the same time the most aggressive one. Unfortunately PERC is said to be carcinogen when being exposed to it at work or when ingesting it through contaminated drinking water. However, a solution for this problem was found in no time at all: Hydrocarbon. Hydrocarbon is a very popular solvent among dry cleaners as it is environmentally friendly and fully bio-degradable.
Ultimately there will always be newer, better and environmentally friendlier solvents for dry cleaning, as research is a never ending process which will always come up with improving solutions. That being said, it means that there will always be a way to keep our ever so precious garments clean.