Creation: Spring & Easter
A pretty face and fine clothes do not make character. (Congo)
The sitcom with the Jeffersons (who moved on up to the East Side) probably made many of us notice dry cleaning, even if just as a backdrop to the show. Otherwise, if you are like me, you probably look at the label, drop off the item at the dry cleaner’s if it is not washable, and then return to pick it up hoping for the best. Further, if you are like me, you may not have known about Thomas Jennings who created the process that today we take for granted.
Jennings was born in 1791 as a free Black man. He went into the tailoring business and did so well that he was ultimately able to open his own store. People came to him to make or alter their clothing. Some fabrics could not be washed, and so his customers would either wear the item soiled or else discard it. Replacing the clothes was great for his business, but he was concerned about how his customers felt to have to throw away clothes they liked.
He tried out different methods of cleaning without laundering. He tested a range of cleaning agents on fabrics till he found the process that we now call “dry cleaning”. At that time, he called it “dry scouring”.
Jennings made a fortune from his 1820 patent. If he had still been a slave, his owner would have reaped the benefits of his invention.
With his first profits he bought his family out of slavery, and he used later profits to fund abolitionist activities. He was assistant secretary of the First Annual Convention of the People of Color that met in Philadelphia in June 1831. When Jennings’ daughter Elizabeth was forced off a public bus in New York City, he hired a prominent law firm to represent her in court. Elizabeth won the case.
Jennings died in New York City in 1856.
Visits to the dry cleaners are about to take on new shape for me, a celebration of a man who was inventive as well as caring.
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