Monday, 8 December 2008

A Pressing Need

(Sprint Press, Rue des Martyrs)
If the ‘Cordonnerie’ in Paris is a child of the 1950s, the Pressing (Dry Cleaner) is unmistakably a flowerpower child of the 1960s and 70s. In a street running down from Montmartre there is one shop that is so stylised in sensuous curves of silvers, oranges and browns that we may assume that it has been recently created to groove to a 70s revival vibe. Tangerine and chocolate are just so completely ‘tendance’ this year honey!

Spread round the corner of the Rue des Martyrs and the Rue de la Tour d'Auvergne, Sprint Press dazzles and beguiles, with strips of silver lettering glittering in the afternoon sun. Sprint and Press - two English words surely used to give a racy, exotic and thoroughly modern spin to this functional activity. Indeed, with the revolution in labour saving household goods coming from across the Atlantic, it seems apt that the French chose to use one of their curious adaptations of English words to describe this activity as a whole - Pressing. With labour saved by this arrival in the neighbourhood, residents in this corner of Paris were able to start a typical day with some ‘footing’ (jogging) in the morning, then down to the Pressing to collect some cleaned and pressed shirts which they would then take home and hang in the ‘dressing’ (walk in wardrobe).

It is easy to overlook in our pampered times how much the invention of the simple washing machine or steam cleaner transformed people’s lives. We take for granted the local dry cleaner in our community and give little thought to how our predecessors managed to keep clothing clean in the city. In many ways, Paris was fortunate in that it gave ready access to large quantities of water, but the task of washing, scrubbing, rinsing and drying materials was still an incredibly hard and demanding job.

Of course, those who could afford to do so outsourced the job to their servants or to a group of women known as ‘lavandières’ whose job it was to wash clothes by hand. These women carried the material to a communal building known as a ‘lavoir’ then performed the job in two steps, first scrubbing and cleaning the clothes in scalding hot water, then rinsing them in water that was now icy cold. Naturally, the hands of these ladies were in an abysmal state after several years of performing this task.

In Paris, the ‘lavoirs’ were mostly situated on kinds of covered floating pontoons docked on the banks of the Seine and known as the ‘Bateaux Lavoirs’. In these vast wooden contraptions, the women could rent a spot which included a bench, a pot to boil the washing, a bucket to rinse it, then an area where they could hang it up to dry. Up until 1910 (the year of the great floods, shown in the postcard here) Paris was home to more than 400 ‘lavoirs’ dotted around the city, including nearly 100 of the floating variety.

As the twentieth century progressed, less and less households employed servants and more and more labour saving devices began appearing inside the home. The use of the lavoirs declined rapidly to a point where not a single building is visible in the city today, and the lavandières have now become the employees of the local Pressing.

Women’s liberation from the home and the menial task of household chores in the 1960s and 70s meant that a service economy was required to complete the tasks that people no longer had the time to perform themselves. In Paris, this has left an interesting snapshot of this particular era in the street facades. As was the case with the cordonneries a decade or so earlier, investment was needed to acquire the necessary machinery to start the Pressing business, but once launched, regular income could be generated without a need to constantly renovate and re-invest in machinery.
Looking at Sprint Press today I realise that I am not only looking at a shrine to the 1970s, but also at a monument to the suffering and subsequent liberation of women
!

6 comments:

Peter said...

Back from an almost two week’s blogging absence, I had a lot to read here. As always, I learn a lot from your very interesting blog. I admire how deep you go on your subjects and the knowledge you bring us!

When I recently posted about the Seine bridges, I also discovered something about all these Seine “lavoirs”. Thought I might do a post about it one day, but now you have already done it and in such a complete and interesting way... Sincere thanks!

Do you know how the Montmartre "Bateau-Lavoir" got its name?

Adam said...

Hi Peter, and welcome back!

It does seem strange that there should be a 'Bateau Lavoir' so far from the Seine, but from what I understand, it was only a nickname given to the establishment. It was a building where artists lived and worked, and obviously also met and discussed, so I think Max Jacob thought of the name Bateau Lavoir as a humourous reference to the places where the washerwomen of Paris worked and gossiped!

ArtSparker said...

You can trace this in the United States in National Geographic print ads from the 50s and 60s. Most feature women in gowns standing beside refrigerators, televisions and other large appliances. A strikingly politically incorrect one features a black maid beaming at a dishwasher and exclaiming "Ise sure got a good job now!" Progress is incremental.

Squirrel said...

Great post !

I can see by the way you write your posts you probably enjoy reading Zola's books (I can't think of the French Titles, but am thinking The Belly of Paris-- maybe Pot Bouille , The Ladies Paradise, (?) He's my favorite author, anyway.

Adam said...

Art Sparker - I'm not sure that there was a 'racial' element to this in Paris as most servants in the city were young girls from the countryside. I think they were known as the 'grisettes'.

Squirrel - Yes, I love reading Zola but need to be in the right mood as it makes for quite disturbing reading! Actually, whilst 'researching' this post, I came across a 'lavoir' in the 18th arrondissement near Montmartre which is being converted into appartments (and possibly the last such structure still standing). Judging only from what the developers said, it could well be the lavoir mentioned by Zola in 'L'Assommoir'.

Alain Q. said...

Such lavoirs have disappeared from the streets of Paris , but in many villages they are preserved and maintained as a testimony of ancient rural life.

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