Since its emergence as a primitive industry in the early 20th century, the establishment and growth of Detroit’s Jewish laundry business reads like an exciting action novel. Immigrant Jews gravitated to the hard-scrabble, back-breaking laundry business because they couldn’t find work elsewhere. Competition was fierce, pay was low, and labor wars became prominent issues in the industry.
According to a December 1992 Ann Arbor News article, ninety percent of the big steam laundries in Michigan in the 1880s were Jewish-owned.
Prior to World War I, Jews and non-Jews alike were leaving Europe by the thousands to escape pogroms, military service, wars, and to seek a better way of life. Many came with little or no money and had few marketable skills. Whether it was because they couldn’t speak English or because they were Jewish, many immigrants couldn’t find housing or employment. Some went to work in the larger steam laundries – hard, dirty work. The men had to sort dirty and wet bundles of clothes and linens and then load them into the huge washing machines. The lucky ones were hired as drivers who were paid pennies per pound for wash they collected.
One of those men was Samuel P. Baker, who came to Detroit with the dream of opening his own business. After two years of driving a horse-drawn buggy for a small laundry and earning nine dollars a week, he opened the Queen Quality Laundry Company in 1915 on Joy Road in Detroit’s west side. After WWII, Sam’s sons, Ernst and Morton, joined the company, servicing neighborhoods, motels, hotels, and hospitals. Nearly a century after Sam hoisted his first heavy bundle, the Baker family and 95 employees continued to operate the business until it burned down and closed permanently on July 6, 2013.
Originally, small laundries were primitive affairs. David Blau remembered how his father, Joseph Blau, got started in the laundry business on the east side of Detroit. Mr. Blau was working in a factory and his wife was doing bachelors’ laundry for pocket money. He decided to rent a garage behind the house next door, installed a washing machine and hired someone to help. He called it The East End Wet Wash and bought suet from Swift and Company and lye from Wyandotte Chemical to make soap. David’s job was to go into the garage at two in the morning to light the huge boiler that was needed to heat the wash water before the workers came in at 6 a.m.
Joseph Blau died in 1957. Two of his sons continued the linen supply business for motels and nursing homes. They absorbed other smaller companies until selling up in 1977.
General Linen Supply Co. was founded by Harry Schumer, who immigrated to Detroit from Poland at age 13. As a 16-year-old, he worked for a man whose business was washing factory cloths. At the suggestion of his boss, Harry began renting out towels and aprons by hawking them on Hastings Street and other busy areas of Detroit. In 1919, Harry and his friend, Leo Gold, opened the General Linen Supply Company. When Leo died in 1927, Harry purchased his share of the business. He ran the company throughout the Depression and the war years – even as he went overseas to serve his adopted country – until his death in 1974.
Harry’s only child, Bill Schumer, and his daughter-in-law Irene Schumer, expanded the company by acquiring other linen and laundry supply companies. Today, General Linen & Uniform Service serves southeastern Michigan and northern Ohio from its offices in the former Ford Piquette Plant. Bill said there were still 132 Jewish-owned laundry and linen facilities in the state in the late 1930s and the early 1940s.
As time passed, the laundry business became diversified. There were those that offered just the washing of overalls and clothing. Some washed only factory cloths while others specialized in linens for barber shops and beauty parlors, hotels and hospitals. Eventually, those early businesses became part of the linen supply industry. Women were hired to repair items, package orders, and work the machines that ironed sheets and tablecloths.
With the increase in home washers and dryers, tighter safety regulations and employment laws, most of the independent, Jewish-owned laundry businesses have disappeared or were sold to large regional and national companies that service a wide variety of industries. Still, their story represents an interesting and important period in our Michigan Jewish heritage.
A fleet of trucks stand ready to depart from General Linen in Detroit, ca. 1940.
For more information:
Resnick, Edie. “From Wash Tubs to Linens and Uniforms: Memories of Jews in Detroit and Their Connections to the Laundry and Linen Supply Industries,” Michigan Jewish History (Fall 2011): 58-67. http://michjewishhistory.org/assets/docs/Journals/Michigan_Jewish_History_2011_09.pdf