Why are there so many laundromats in America?

Within minutes of getting into Johnny’s air-conditioned Prius at Austin airport, he was telling us about the time he was deported from the UK because he arrived without a visa and no return ticket. The white laminated tag on his dashboard tells us that he is an official Lyft driver but he looks more like one of the Z-Boys, all grown up with a perfect white grin and ear length blonde hair that flicks around while he talks. To save money, because we’re on an epic six week long trip around America, we’ve chosen to share our ride. Jason joins us in the Prius just as Johnny is recounting being stuck in Heathrow airport waiting to be told when he is going to be flown home. Jason, who is black, skinny, wears a sun bleached red baseball cap and Clark Kent style glasses, immediately joins in with the story with enthusiastic ‘No way man!’ interjections.

We are all hanging on Johnny’s every word. After six days of sleeping on a bench in one of the Terminals he’d befriended all of the staff in his vicinity and was sad to be packed off back to California, where he is undeniably from, despite now living in Austin. He finishes off his story by saying, ‘That was an excellent mistake. I really enjoyed being deported.’ Wise words. I’ve tried to have a similarly positive view of my own mistakes ever since.

By the time we reach the shiny silver Airstream that we are staying in for five days, we’d learnt that Jason was in town for a LARPing event in a local hotel which he talked about with such eagerness and openness that he left no room for stereotypes and judgement. By the time he’d finished describing the ‘crime scene’ LARP group, Andy and I were ready to ditch our Airbnb and follow him to his LARP event. With warm goodbyes, we hopped out of the car into the bone melting July heat and watched the silver car drift silently away. What an excellent conversation, we both agreed, and one that would never happen in England- such expressions of earnest feeling rarely occur between friends let alone in small talk.

At this point, we had been in America for less than two weeks.

airstream austin

Happy and bemused, we dropped our bags and ourselves onto the neat sofa-that-turns-into-a-bed inside our rented Airstream and turned the fan on to the setting that had three snowflake symbols.

Once the sweat had stopped rolling down my nose, I shouted out to Andy over the sound of the blasting air conditioner, ‘We need to wash our clothes.’ We looked around. We couldn’t see anything that looked like a clever cupboard-that-is-also-a-washing-machine. I quickly sent a message to Debbie, the owner of the irresistibly quirky Airstream, and asked about washing options. The unit was parked on a small plot of ground next to her house and the ad mentioned access to a washing machine… maybe she lets guests use her own machine we thought.

‘We don’t have a washing machine!’ Debbie messaged back speedily. ‘We use a laundromat down the road’, she added, with a link to Spinzone laundry (which I can recommend if in Austin). As a someone who has lived half her life in France and half in England, I have been into a laundromat three times. Twice at university: once when the washing machine in our student accommodation broke on a Sunday and once when two drunk friends wanted to see if they could fit into the industrial sized dryers. Third time in Brighton when the communal washing machine in our communal flat broke and we paid to wash our clothes before Andy figured out that he could fix the machine himself using a Youtube video and some basic tools.

We peered out through the porthole sized window above the table-that-disappears-into-the-floor and looked again at Debbie’s house across the way. It was a large single level home with a carport, sliding doors out to the garden and room for at least two bedrooms and a good sized kitchen. It couldn’t be cheaper to use a laundromat, and it was definitely less convenient. The wet clothes would dry before they were even hung out in the Texas heat, why go and heat up huge metal drums unnecessarily?

Why wouldn’t she have a washing machine?

spinzone washing machine

There are approximately 29,500 coin laundromats in America.

The Coin Laundry Association, which I imagine operates out of Coen brothers movie set, tells me that the laundromat industry generates $5 billion dollars in revenue and that the number of laundromats has actually increased over the last 70 years because of the growing number of renters.  In 2014 this had reached the heady heights of 41.1% of the US population due to the much put-upon 18-34 demographic who are resorting to renting because they are struggling to buy homes. But 61% of Germans and 50% of French people rent and, although I have seen laundromats in both countries, they are much rarer. As we travelled to more cities and worked our way through our six weeks, we were directed to more and more laundromats. How had this happened? Why did it seem like so few Americans had washing machines at home?

The one exception was when we stayed with a friend in her home in L.A. As she was giving us a quick tour of her home- extra towels, help yourself to wine, here’s where I keep the giant bags of tortilla chips (3 lbs!!), garden, four TV remotes- we couldn’t miss the washing machine in the corner of her kitchen. Larger than most European cars, it was a top-loading monster. We lifted the thick metal lid and peered into the black interior. American washing machines are not only a rare shy species, they are also look very different from their British counterparts. The standard top loading American washing machine is ten centimetres wider and ten to twenty centimetres deeper than the average UK washing machine. Plus, where a British washing machine has a Life Aquatic style porthole in the middle of its front-loading door, American machines are formidable metal cubes that look like they have been carved out of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

tortilla chips

Our L.A. friend actually had a smaller house than Debbie-from-Austin’s but it was also worth more money and she earned more than Debbie, who turned out to be… a Lyft driver. Could this be about money and class divides we wondered? All of the Airbnbs we’d stayed in so far were in healthily middle class neighbourhoods though, with healthily middle class rents. And yet, the healthily middle class locals carried cotton bags full of washing and pockets jingling with coins to the nearby laundromat on the weekend. Some of it must be about size we decided, the machines were big if you lived in a smaller home or apartment. Plus, maybe white goods were also more expensive here? Were we spoilt with cheap and conveniently proportioned white goods in the UK and we didn’t realise?

After several invigorating hikes around a Target, a Walmart and a town-sized Costco, we observed that compact machines were hard to find and thus very expensive, leaving only standard size ‘family’ machines as affordable options. Given that 80% of Americans now live in urban areas, and that rents continued to increase in 80% of American cities this year, so perhaps apartment renting urbanites were deciding to use the space for a washing machine for something else instead… another bedroom maybe? We also noted that, for a standard washing machine, the cost was about the same as the UK, and the US invented resale sites like Craigslist so it couldn’t be that Brits had more opportunities to buy cheap second hand washing machines. Neither of these two elements, even combined, seemed to completely explain the puzzle of the preponderance of laundromats.

We found the last pieces of the puzzle when we arrived in Nashville, through another Lyft driver called George.

Our fascination with the mystery of the missing washing machines had reached fever pitch, so we put the question to our driver George, an avid Obama supporter with whom we’d already discussed the Trump administration. We had broken the ice with politics and we felt comfortable asking oddball tourist questions. George, who had a booming voice, nodded and said, ‘Look outside, look at those houses being built right here.’ We peered out of the huge tinted windows of his huge flat bed truck- we could see a row of structures in the shape of two storey homes with no external walls, just frames.

We turned back to George mystified. ‘Their made of wood! Y’all didn’t notice?’ In a few sentences he explained that landlords were responsible for providing white goods in most American rental properties and often they were reluctant to include them because of the maintenance costs.  And then there was always the risk that the machine might leak and do long-term, expensive, damage to the timber frames. Even smaller apartment buildings (4 floors and less) are made of timber frames in the US. Put all of these reasons together- the size of machines, the growing number of renters, timber frames and landlords’ reluctance and we could see how laundromats had gained a foothold in American society. Whereas in Britain (and other European countries) over 90% of homes, including rental homes, have washing machines.

As soon as we had started to notice laundromats in America, we saw them everywhere. And as we did our own little investigation into why there were so many, we began to see all of kinds of differences between the way we lived in the UK and the way that people lived in the US.

Of course there were the big differences like climate, or accents or even fast food chains, that every talks about after trips from the UK to the US and vice versa. But we also noticed almost invisible differences made up of spaces where objects should be… like washing machines. It’s difficult to weigh the importance of these prosaic differences. How much does it change our British culture, we wondered, that we wash our clothes at home, that we don’t take a trip to the laundromat most weekends? How much does it shape American culture that they do? Are these the humdrum things that make national identity? Or is it just a laundromat?

We should probably have asked a Lyft driver, in America they are the new town criers and oracles.

This article is not, despite appearances, sponsored by Lyft.

Although I would urge you to use their services- we had some of our best holiday moments talking to Lyft drivers and we always got where we needed to go.

I can also recommend the amazing Airstream we stayed in via Airbnb in Austin, Texas. Leave me a comment if you have any questions about it!

Top photo from Pexels, third photo from Spinzone, last photo from Flickr, all other photos my own.

 

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  • Catherine

    What a great article. One of the best yet.

    • Emma J

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m already planning one about the lack of ovens in France, maybe called ‘How do French people cook quiche without ovens?’…

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