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The History of Dry Cleaning


Professional garment care dates back to the days of Pompeii when early cleaners were called "fullers." They used lye and ammonia in early laundering and a type of clay called "fuller's earth" to absorb soils and greases from clothing too delicate for laundering. While 1690 is the first published reference to the use of turpentine for removing tar and varnish from fabrics, it wasn't until 1716 that turpentine began to be used regularly as a "dry cleaner" for grease and oil stains to supplement wet cleaning processes.  Down through the ages, turpentine, a distillation of pine pitch, has had several names: oil of turpentine, spirits of turpentine, camphene, and "turps." Even before organic solvent was used to clean garments by immersion methods, the cleaner of clothes was known as a "degraisseur," a degreaser of textiles able to remove grease and fat stains from cloth.  The French name for cleaner was teinturier-degraisseur (a dryer-degreaser).  "Degraisseur" was the common term applied to a master dryer who specialized in both dyeing and cleaning garments. In the early 1900s, dry cleaners began using spirits of turpentine, called "camphene," as a dry cleaning solvent.  The firm, Jolly-Belin in Paris, France, is credited with spearheading the first successful use of spirits of turpentine as a commercial dry cleaning solvent. This discovery quickly spread to other countries on the continent and later to the British Isles, led by John Pullar and Sons in Perth, Scotland.  The new process became known as "French Cleaning," named for the earlier reputation and fame gained in France.  This term continues to be used today to imply that the process is special and requires highly skilled handwork.

Today, the dry cleaner's goal is to safely clean the fabric and preserve the color of the garment.  A second aim is to restore the garment to a nearly new condition.  Dry cleaning is defined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the Care Label Rules as:

  • Use of a specially designed machine

  • Use of a solvent

  • Relative humidity levels up to 75 percent

  • Tumble dry temperatures up to 160°F

  • Steam press or steam air finish

A dry cleaning machine is specially designed with respect to the chemical properties of the solvent being used while taking into account relative humidity and tumble dry temperatures.  Garments are put into a dry cleaning machine when they are dry and are taken out when they are dry even though they come in contact with a solvent during the wash cycle.  Thus, garments are "dry cleaned".  When clean garments are taken from a dry cleaning machine, commercial steam presses and steam air finishers are used to press and finish the garments.

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