The Dirty Business of Cleaning Clothes


When I was a young newlywed I opted to take care of the home’s laundry.  To me, it was easiest household task around, simply pretend to be racist for a moment and separate the whites from the darks then put the clothes in the big white box and you’re done!  No more schlepping to the stream to slap clothes against a rock though that’s not entirely true in San Miguel de Allende.

The age old tradition of washing dirty clothes by hand continues on and even the most modern, high-end home will come with a concrete sink with wash board grooves in the laundry room to get out the toughest stains.  Beyond the physical effort, the big drawback to hand washing is it requires a lot of water to soak, soap and rinse each item of clothing.

Even homes with washing machines will rarely have a dryer.  It’s costly to run and hard on the clothes compared to the free drying powers of the wind and sun.  I lucked out and have a garage next to the washing machine to place damp clothes without having to worry my unmentionables may blow into a neighbor’s courtyard!

While early indigenous civilizations often found themselves washing clothes down by the river, a rigorous yet effective method that is still practiced; the modern era has brought the water into the home.  Clothes are now often washed in a backyard or patio area.

Other folks still prefer the social aspect of washing clothes at the Chorro in public sinks.  Some of my pals have fond memories of wash days as they could bathe and frolic in the sinks when little as Mom got caught up on the news of the day.

Foreigners are usually surprised at what a bargain taking their clothes to a laundry is. You drop off your clothes and they wash, dry, and fold them nicely. And many of them will iron if you pay just a little bit extra. Most of the local laundries eyeball, or weigh, your bag of dirty laundry to come up with a price.

I dated a gal that owned a chain of laundromats across San Miguel de Allende.  But one day she had an epiphany, selling her shops and moving to Silao, the dumpy town by the Leon airport.  Silao is a factory town where workers often live during the week and go back home on the weekends.  Along with requiring bars and sex workers, factory workers need their laundry done for them, plus Silao is a dry town.  Well, it has booze, but it has little water.  My gal pal was smart enough to build large cisterns to store water under each of her shops ensuring the loads never paused for lack of water.  Laundry is hard, but never-ending, work.

It was actually the Romans who took the concept of washing clothes and turned it into a commercial industry. The shift from homespun fabrics to much cheaper clothes called for more frequent washing. Human urine was used, collected from public restrooms, since pee contains ammonia it was an important cleaning agent not only in Roman times, but Medieval Europe as well. Some people would sell their urine to a laundry except the poor who had no pot to transport and sell their pee; hence the popular phrase, ”They’re so poor, they don’t have a pot to piss in.”

Until fairly recently, here in town women would gather white wildflowers that bloomed around the St. Joseph on the Mountain church up the hill from the market.  The area was back of beyond just a few decades ago looking much like the botanical garden does today.

According to an 1897 Smithsonian report on plants in Mexico certain agaves and yuccas made the most bubbles though here it was a type of laurel folks favored.  To this day you’ll find on the ingredient list of most laundry soaps (and many shampoos and toothpastes) laurel sulfate to make getting clean associated with generating bubbles.

Wherever your clothes get cleaned remember you are participating in a long, if smelly, part of human nature’s desire to appear well groomed!

by Joseph Toone


San Miguel Post