Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Clean and free - Thomas Jennings

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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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at