(Sprint Press, Rue des Martyrs)
If the ‘Cordonnerie’ in Paris is a child of the 1950s, the Pressing (Dry Cleaner) is unmistakably a flowerpower child of the 1960s and 70s. In a street running down from Montmartre there is one shop that is so stylised in sensuous curves of silvers, oranges and browns that we may assume that it has been recently created to groove to a 70s revival vibe. Tangerine and chocolate are just so completely ‘tendance’ this year honey!
Spread round the corner of the Rue des Martyrs and the Rue de la Tour d'Auvergne, Sprint Press dazzles and beguiles, with strips of silver lettering glittering in the afternoon sun. Sprint and Press - two English words surely used to give a racy, exotic and thoroughly modern spin to this functional activity. Indeed, with the revolution in labour saving household goods coming from across the Atlantic, it seems apt that the French chose to use one of their curious adaptations of English words to describe this activity as a whole - Pressing. With labour saved by this arrival in the neighbourhood, residents in this corner of Paris were able to start a typical day with some ‘footing’ (jogging) in the morning, then down to the Pressing to collect some cleaned and pressed shirts which they would then take home and hang in the ‘dressing’ (walk in wardrobe).
It is easy to overlook in our pampered times how much the invention of the simple washing machine or steam cleaner transformed people’s lives. We take for granted the local dry cleaner in our community and give little thought to how our predecessors managed to keep clothing clean in the city. In many ways, Paris was fortunate in that it gave ready access to large quantities of water, but the task of washing, scrubbing, rinsing and drying materials was still an incredibly hard and demanding job.
Of course, those who could afford to do so outsourced the job to their servants or to a group of women known as ‘lavandières’ whose job it was to wash clothes by hand. These women carried the material to a communal building known as a ‘lavoir’ then performed the job in two steps, first scrubbing and cleaning the clothes in scalding hot water, then rinsing them in water that was now icy cold. Naturally, the hands of these ladies were in an abysmal state after several years of performing this task.
In Paris, the ‘lavoirs’ were mostly situated on kinds of covered floating pontoons docked on the banks of the Seine and known as the ‘Bateaux Lavoirs’. In these vast wooden contraptions, the women could rent a spot which included a bench, a pot to boil the washing, a bucket to rinse it, then an area where they could hang it up to dry. Up until 1910 (the year of the great floods, shown in the postcard here) Paris was home to more than 400 ‘lavoirs’ dotted around the city, including nearly 100 of the floating variety.
As the twentieth century progressed, less and less households employed servants and more and more labour saving devices began appearing inside the home. The use of the lavoirs declined rapidly to a point where not a single building is visible in the city today, and the lavandières have now become the employees of the local Pressing.
Women’s liberation from the home and the menial task of household chores in the 1960s and 70s meant that a service economy was required to complete the tasks that people no longer had the time to perform themselves. In Paris, this has left an interesting snapshot of this particular era in the street facades. As was the case with the cordonneries a decade or so earlier, investment was needed to acquire the necessary machinery to start the Pressing business, but once launched, regular income could be generated without a need to constantly renovate and re-invest in machinery.
Looking at Sprint Press today I realise that I am not only looking at a shrine to the 1970s, but also at a monument to the suffering and subsequent liberation of women!