The Story of Dry Cleaning - Harvey Ltd

The Story of Dry Cleaning

The earliest records of professional dry cleaning go all the way back to the Ancient Romans. Dry cleaning shops were discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, a Roman city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Those cleaners, known as fullers, used a type of clay known as fuller’s earth along with lye and ammonia (derived from urine) in order to remove stains such as dirt and sweat from clothing. That process proved pretty effective for any fabric too delicate for normal washing or stains that refused to budge. (In fact, the industry was so prominent that there were taxes on collecting urine. Fullers generally used animal urine and would also maintain urine collecting pots at public bathrooms.)

Teinturerier Jolly Belin

As for more modern methods, the biggest revolution in dry cleaning came around in the early 19th century. Traditionally, Jean Baptiste Jolly of France is generally named the father of modern dry cleaning. The story goes that in 1825, a careless maid knocked over a lamp and spilled turpentine on a dirty tablecloth. Jolly noticed that once the turpentine dried, the stains that had marred the fabric were gone. He conducted an experiment where he bathed the entire tablecloth in a bathtub filled with turpentine and found that it came clean once it dried. Whether a maid and an accident really had anything to do with it or not, Jolly used this method when he opened the often claimed first modern dry-cleaning shop, “Teinturerier Jolly Belin”, in Paris.

Thomas L. Jennings

Thomas L. Jennings was the first African American patent holder in the U.S., which was for his dry-cleaning technology in 1821. Jennings was born free to a free Black family in New York City. As a youth, he learned a trade as a tailor. He built a business and married a woman named Elizabeth from Delaware who was born into slavery. Under New York’s gradual abolition law of 1799, she was converted to the status of an indentured servant and was not eligible for full emancipation until 1827.

At the time, the abolition law freed slave children born after July 4, 1799, but only after they had served “apprenticeships” of twenty-eight years for men and twenty-five for women, thus compensating owners for the future loss of their property. He and his wife had three children: Matilda, Elizabeth, and James. Jennings built a business as a tailor and spent his early earnings on legal fees to purchase his wife and some of their children out of slavery. He was instrumental in the founding and was a trustee of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and also supported the abolitionist movement and became active in working for the rights of free Blacks.
In 1821, he was the first Black to be granted a patent for his method of dry cleaning. Mr. Jennings’ patent was for a process known as “Dry Scouring.” In 1821, Dry Scouring was, in Mr. Jennings’ words, “… a method of Scouring Clothes, and Woolen Fabrics in general, so that they keep their original shape, and have the polish and appearance of new.” What exactly Dry Scouring was, though, is lost. In 1836, the US. Patent and Trademark Office was relocating and stored their patents in Washington’s Blodget’s Hotel. There was a fire, and the patents were lost.

With the proceeds of his invention, he bought his wife and children’s freedom, then continued his civil rights work. He was active on issues related to emigration to other countries; opposing colonization in Africa, as proposed by the American Colonization Society; and supporting the expansion of suffrage for Black men. Jennings became active in working for civil rights for the Black community. In 1831, he was selected as assistant secretary to the First Annual National Negro Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

After his daughter, Elizabeth, was forcibly removed from a “whites only” streetcar in New York City, he organized a movement against racial segregation in public transit in the city; the services were provided by private companies. Elizabeth Jennings won her case in 1854. The lawyer that her father hired was the future President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur.

Turpentine, Gasoline and Other Solvents

After Jennings, other dry cleaners during the 19th century used things like turpentine, benzene, kerosene, gasoline, and petrol as solvents in the process of dry cleaning clothes. These solvents made dry cleaning a dangerous business. Turpentine caused clothes to smell even after being cleaned, and benzene could be toxic to dry cleaners or customers if left on the clothes. But all of these solvents posed the bigger problem of being highly flammable. The danger of clothes and even the building catching fire was so great that most cities refused to allow dry cleaning to occur in the business districts. In the United Kingdom, for example, dry cleaners had smaller satellite stores in the city where they took in customers’ clothes and then those clothes were transported to a “factory” outside of the city limits where the dry cleaning took place.

The major risk of clothes and buildings catching on fire because of the flammable solvents led to dry cleaners searching for a safer alternative. Chlorinated solvents gained popularity in the early 20th century, quickly leaving the flammable solvents in the dust. They removed stains just as well as petroleum-based cleaners without the risk of causing the clothes or factories to catch fire. That also meant dry cleaners could move their cleaning facilities back into cities and eliminated the need to transport clothes back and forth between two locations.

Discovery of "Perc"

A chlorine-based solvent with the chemical name tetrachloroethylene, or sometimes called perchloroethylene, became the go-to solvent for dry cleaners in the 1930s. Originally discovered in 1821 by Michael Faraday, “perc” could not only be used in relatively compact dry-cleaning machines, but also did a better job of cleaning than any of the other solvents of the day; it’s still the chemical of choice for most dry cleaners today.

While perc is considered much safer than most solvents used by dry cleaners in the past, the EPA is working to phase the solvent out of the industry. The EPA claims that while wearing clothes treated with perc does not appear to be dangerous, perc can be dangerous if accidentally released into the environment as it’s toxic to plants and animals. Additionally, the EPA also notes that sustained exposure to perc, such as by workers in the industry, can cause health issues with the nervous system, including potentially drastically increased chances of developing Parkinson’s Disease. There are also studies done by the EPA that indicate perc is likely a carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer also classifies the chemical as a likely carcinogenic.

Chronology of Historical Developments in Drycleaning

1690 – First reference for the use of an organic solvent (spirits of turpentine) to spot clean fat and oil stains on clothing (Sigworth, 1981).

1821 - Perchloroethylene (PCE) synthesized by Michael Faraday (Partington, 1964)

1840s – The firm of Jolly-Belin opens a commercial dry-cleaning operation in Paris using spirits of turpentine as a dry-cleaning solvent (IFI).

1869 – Pullars of Perth Scotland introduces the first power machinery for dry-cleaning (Johnson, 1971).

1879 – At least one dry-cleaning plant was operating in the U.S. (Sigworth, 1981).

Late 19th Century – Turpentine spirits, camphor oil, benzene, naphtha, kerosene and white gasoline used as dry-cleaning solvents. Clothing was washed and rinsed in tubs of solvent and then hung in a warm room to dry.

1898 – Carbon tetrachloride imported from Germany by Ernest C. Klipstein.  Carbon tetrachloride was sold as a dry-cleaning and spot-removing agent under the trade name of Carbona (Doherty, 2000).

Early 1900s

  • Raw white gasoline is the primary dry-cleaning solvent used in the United States.
  • Due to fire and explosion hazards associated with gasoline, dry-cleaning plants are considered such a poor risk that most insurance companies would not issue a policy for a dry-cleaning facility (Michelsen, 1957).
  • First use of distillation to purify spent solvent (Lohman, 2002).

1903 - Steam presses introduced to dry-cleaning operations (Martin, 1958).

1905 - Clarifying systems (settling tanks) used to purify dirty solvent (Lohman, 2002).

1915 – The average U.S. dry-cleaning operation uses 12,000 gallons of gasoline a year (Michelsen, 1957).


  • Bag filters first utilized to purify spent solvent, replacing clarifiers (Lohman, 2002). 
  • First use of powder filtration systems (Lohman, 2002).
  • First dryers (tumblers) utilized in dry-cleaning plants. They replace drying cabinets or steam cabinets (Lohman, 2002).

 1924 – Lloyd E. Jackson of the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, working with W.J. Stoddard, an Atlanta drycleaner and president of the National Institute of Dry cleaning, develops specifications for a higher flash point petroleum dry-cleaning solvent which became known as Stoddard solvent (Martin, 1958).

March 1, 1928 – U.S. Department of Commerce requires a minimum flash point of 100° F for petroleum dry-cleaning solvents.  Drycleaners begin using Stoddard solvent (Martin, 1958).

1930 – Trichloethylene (TCE) is introduced as a dry-cleaning solvent in U.S.  Problems with dye bleeding and equipment corrosion limit the use of TCE (Martin, 1958).

1934 – Perchloroethylene is introduced as a dry-cleaning solvent in U.S. (Martin, 1958).

1940 – Chlorinated solvent use by the U.S. dry-cleaning industry was estimated to be 45 million pounds of carbon tetrachloride, 12 million pounds of perchloroethylene and 5 million pounds of trichloroethylene (Michelsen, 1957).


  • Combination washer/extractor dry-cleaning machines marketed (Lohman, 2002).
  • Perc reclaimers (solvent recovery tumblers or dryers) introduced (Lohman, 2002).
  • Flat screen filters introduced (Lohman, 2002).

World War II – Shortages of chlorinated solvents result in most dry-cleaning being conducted with petroleum dry-cleaning solvents in the U.S. (Michelsen, 1957).

1948 – Perchloroethylene replaces carbon tetrachloride as the leading chlorinated solvent used in dry-cleaning (Chemical Week, 1957).


  • The National Institute of Cleaning and Dyeing worked with the U.S. Bureau of Standards to develop standards for a higher flash point petroleum dry-cleaning solvent known as 140-F solvent (Michelsen, 1957).
  • A study by the National Institute of Cleaning and Dyeing determines that chlorinated solvent use by the U.S. dry-cleaning industry was 67,500,000 pounds of PCE and 15,000,000 pounds of carbon tetrachloride (Michelsen, 1957)

1950s – The use of carbon tetrachloride as a dry-cleaning solvent is discontinued due to toxicity and corrosion problems with equipment. (Kirk-Othmer, 1965).

1955 – The U.S. dry-cleaning industry used an estimated 145,000,000 gallons of Stoddard solvent, 4,000,000 gallons of 140-F solvent and 8,500,000 gallons of PCE (Michelsen, 1957).

Late 1950s

  • Petroleum solvents still the predominant solvents used in dry-cleaning in the U.S.
  • Rigid and flexible tube (tubular) screen filters introduced (Lohman, 2002).

1959 – It is estimated that the average neighborhood PCE dry-cleaning operation uses 50 to 100 gallons of PCE per month and that a one 55-gallon drum of PCE cleans about 500 pounds of clothing (Doherty, 2000).

1960 – Whirlpool Corporation introduces the first coin-operated dry-cleaning machine (Kirk-Othmer, 1965).

Early 1960s - Cartridge filters are introduced (Caplan, 2003).

1962 – PCE becomes the dry-cleaning solvent of choice in the U.S., and the dry-cleaning industry accounts for approximately 90% of PCE consumption (Chemical Engineering News, 1963).

1964 - E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. introduces a fluorinated-chlorinated hydrocarbon dry-cleaning solvent (1,1,2-trichloro-1,2,2-trifluoroethane, or Freon 113) under the trade name Valclene® (Johnson, 1971).

1966 – dry-cleaning machines for fluorocarbon solvents developed by Böhler & Weber in Germany (Böwe, 2002).

1968 – Böhler &Weber develops first dry-to-dry machines in Germany (Böwe, 2002).


  • Petroleum reclaimers (recovery tumblers) are developed (Lohman, 2002).
  • Third generation dry-cleaning machines (closed loop dry-to-dry machines) are developed (Miller, 1998).

December 16, 1974 – The Safe Drinking Water Act signed into law.  The act requires the states to regulate all direct injections of wastes to the subsurface (Pankow & Cherry, 1996).

1975 - The average PCE dry-cleaning machine can clean approximately 8,000 pounds of clothing with one 55-gallon drum of PCE (Kirschner, 1994).


  • Spin disc filters are introduced (Caplan, 2003).
  • 1,1,1-Trichloroethane (methyl chloroform or TCA) marketed as a dry-cleaning solvent (Dowclene LS®). There was limited use of this solvent in dry-cleaning because of corrosion problems.

1980 – PCE use peaks in the U.S. (Dougherty, 2000).

November 1980 – Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) promulgated.  This legislation regulates the generation, transportation, treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes in the U.S.

December 26, 1985 – E.P.A. published a Notice of Intent to list PCE as a potentially toxic air pollutant to be regulated under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act (Office of Air Quality, 1991).

1986 – According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, there are approximately 21,787 dry-cleaning plants in the United States.  Of these there are 4,300 coin-operated dry-cleaning facilities (19.7%), 1,182 are industrial laundry and dry-cleaning facilities (5.4%) and 16,305 are commercial dry-cleaning facilities (74.8%).  Of these facilities, 18,899 (86.7%) use PCE, 489 facilities (2.2% use Valclene), 50 (0.2%) use TCA and 2,349 (10.8%) use petroleum solvent (U.S.D.C., 1986).

September 1986 – Notification deadline for small quantity generators of hazardous waste under the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA) to RCRA.  Most PCE drycleaners in U.S. began shipping wastes offsite as hazardous wastes.

September 1987 – Twenty-seven countries sign the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, committing every signatory state to reduce its use of chlorinated fluorocarbons by 50% of their level of use in 1986 by 1999.  The dry-cleaning solvents that would be affected are 1,1,2 trichloro-1,2,2-trifluoroethane (Valclene) and 1,1,1-trichloroethane (Rowland, 1993).

1988 – A survey of dry-cleaning equipment and plant operations in the U.S. conducted by the International Fabricare Institute finds that approximately 70.7% of the 909 respondents discharged separator water to either the sanitary sewer or to a septic system (IFI, 1989).

April 1989 – The City of Lodi, California detects PCE in groundwater samples collected from two of its Municipal wells at concentrations exceeding the California Maximum Contaminant Level for drinking water.  This discovery led to extensive investigations that identified over 50 potential contaminant sources, including a number of dry-cleaning facilities (Groundwater Resources Association, 2004).

June 1989 - Amendments to the Clean Water Act identify 83 compounds found in drinking water which may have an adverse effect on people’s health. PCE and its degradation products are among these compounds.  Drinking water Maximum Contaminant Levels are set for these compounds (Arbuckle, 1991).

1990 – dry cleaning/textile processing account for approximately 50% of PCE use in the U.S. (HSIA, 1998).

December 9, 1990 – Clean Air Act Amendments: EPA proposes national emission standards to limit PCE emissions from dry-cleaning plants (EPA, 2006).

March 1992 – A study by the Central Valley Region, California Regional Water Quality Control Board, identifies sanitary sewer lines as “the main discharge point for dry cleaners” of wastewater containing “dissolved PCE … pure cleaning solvent and solids containing PCE” (Izzo, 1992).


  • First commercial use of a closed-loop/direct-couple solvent delivery system (Dawson, 2007).
  • It is estimated that a typical PCE dry-cleaning machine can clean 16,000 pounds of clothing using one 55-gallon drum of PCE (Kirshner, 1994).

September 22, 1993 – EPA promulgated technology-based emission standards to control emissions of PCE from dry-cleaning facilities.  No PCE transfer machines can be installed after this date (EPA, 2006).


  • Exxon Chemical begins marketing DF-2000™ a high flashpoint synthetic paraffin (petroleum) dry-cleaning solvent (Dawson, 2007).
  • Connecticut and Florida create the first dry-cleaning solvent cleanup programs in the United States.

December 1994 – Dade County, Florida files a law suit against defendants and owners and operators of several dry-cleaning facilities in the Suniland area.  dry-cleaning solvent contaminants were detected in groundwater samples collected from 556 private water wells located hydraulically downgradient of dry-cleaning facilities in 4 shopping centers. The Dade County Water and Sewer Authority installed public water mains in the area at a cost of over $5 million (Service, 1994).

1995 – Kansas, Minnesota, Oregon, South Carolina, create dry-cleaning solvent cleanup programs.


  • dry-cleaning is still the highest volume use of PCE in U.S. (Leder, 1999).
  • First home dry-cleaning kits marketed.

January 1, 1996 – Beginning of phase out of the production of 1,1,1-trichloroethane (methyl chloroform) and 1,1,2-trichloro-1,2,2-trifluoroethane (Freon 113) in the U.S. (ICF, 2004)

September 21, 1996 - National Emission Standard Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) Requirements issued.  Requirements include dry-cleaning machinery maintenance, record keeping and monitoring.


  • Illinois, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin create dry-cleaning solvent cleanup programs.
  • The primary use of PCE in the U.S. is no longer as dry-cleaning solvent but as a chemical intermediary (HSIA, 1998).
  • Pilgrim Enterprises sues dry-cleaning equipment manufacturers and suppliers for $12 million for cleanup costs associated with 17 contaminated dry-cleaning sites in Houston and San Antonio (National Clothesline, 2003).

1998 – dry cleaning/textile processing accounts for 36% of PCE usage in the U.S. (HSIA, 1999).


  • Rynex™ (dipropylene glycol tertiary-butyl ether) first marketed as a dry-cleaning solvent (Hayday, 2007).
  • GreenEarth® (Decamethylcyclcopentasiloxane) a silicon-based solvent is first marketed as a dry-cleaning solvent (Maxwell, 2007).

February 5, 1999 – The first commercial liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) dry-cleaning plant opens in Wilmington, North Carolina (Wentz, 2001).

April 13, 1999 - The State Coalition for Remediation of Drycleaners is formed in Washington D.C.  This organization is composed of representatives from the states with dry-cleaning solvent cleanup programs and is sponsored by the U.S. E.P.A.’s Technology Innovation Office.


  • Alabama and Missouri create dry-cleaning solvent cleanup programs.
  • PureDry™, a mixture of isoparaffinic hydrocarbons, hydrofluoroethers and perfluoroisobutylethers was first marketed as a dry-cleaning solvent (Eastern Research, 2005)
  • The City of Lodi, California filed a suit in Federal Court against 15 Lodi businesses, including a number of dry-cleaning businesses, for PCE contamination of some of its water supply wells (Groundwater Resources, 2004).

December 6, 2002: The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s governing board voted unanimously to require the region’s estimated 2,200 dry cleaners to switch from PCE to a non-toxic alternative.  The proposed phase-out of PCE would begin on January 1, 2003 and end with total phase-out of PCE by 2020.  This is the nation’s first proposed ban on PCE (Wides, 2002).

2003 – Texas creates a dry-cleaning solvent cleanup program.

April 2004 – Impress™ (propylene glycol-ether based dry-cleaning solvent) first marketed (Liotta, 2007).

January 25, 2006 – California Air Resources Board votes to phase out PCE dry-cleaning by 2023 (California EPA, 2007).

June 2006 – A San Francisco Superior Court jury awards the City of Modesto, California over $178 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages for PCE contamination of its water wells and other city properties. The defendants were dry-cleaning chemical manufacturers and dry-cleaning companies (National Clothesline, 2006).

July 27, 2006 – Effective date for final rule for National Perchloroethylene Air Emissions Standards for Dry Cleaning Facilities (40 CFR Part 63).  This is a revision of standards promulgated on September 22, 1993.  New dry-cleaning machines installed in residential buildings are not allowed to use PCE (EPA 2006).

October 2006: DrySolv™ (n-propyl bromide) first marketed as a dry-cleaning solvent (Roccon, 2007).

July 27, 2008 – Deadline for phase-out of PCE transfer machines (EPA, 2006).

December 21, 2020 – All existing PCE dry-cleaning machines in co-residential facilities are prohibited in the U.S. (EPA, 2006).


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