When Was Dry Cleaning Invented

Updated June 15, 2024

When was dry cleaning invented?

Throughout the decades, the evolution of dry cleaning has certainly been an interesting one.

Cleaning garments is an ancient task. As hygiene evolved so did our need for clothing care. Then, you add the evolution of fabrics that require various processes.

Ancient Romans washed textiles with early solvents such as lye, ammonia, and clay. Fortunately, there are many clothing care options including dry cleaning. Let’s take a look at its history. (Yes, it’s quite interesting!)

What is Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaning is a specialized garment care method utilizing chemical solvents. No water is involved. Renowned for its effectiveness in removing dirt, stains, and odors, it gained popularity.

Then, there was its temporary downfall due to environmental concerns. But we will dig into this a little later. Until then, have no fear! Hallak Cleaners and other dry cleaners adhere to strict guidelines.

Significant dry cleaning advancements allow for safer and more eco-friendly alternatives. Discover the history of dry cleaning today. From earlier flammable petroleum solvents to today’s more common solvents proven to be environmentally-friendly.

The Evolution of Dry Cleaning

Earlier, we mentioned Ancient Rome and its dry-cleaning connection. They understood the benefits of solvents – and their stain-removal properties.

Up until mid-19th century, dry cleaning looked very different. Earlier methods utilized petroleum-based solvents. Although highly effective as stain removes, they pose risks to the environment. (They also are quite harsh on fabrics as well.)

Dry cleaning slowly evolved bringing new solvents. One of the earlier (and less harmful) solvents is naphtha. The dry cleaning industry didn’t stop there. They continued and continue to adapt.

Neon green Dry Cleaning sign

Early History

Unfortunately, the early dry cleaning history is tainted by its hazardous chemical usage. Let’s take a look at the early dry cleaning process.

Originally, the process was discovered by accident. In the early 1800s, Jean Baptiste Jolly, a French textile dye works owner, accidentally spilled kerosene on a tablecloth. He noticed that the cloth became cleaner and the spot was gone! Intrigued, Jolly began experimenting with different solvents. (He is often considered the father of dry cleaning. He opened the first of what would be dry cleaning shops.)

Gasoline, kerosene, and other flammable petroleum-based solvents were the main go to. Were they effective stain removers? Yes. Were they highly volatile and dangerous? Yes, as well. Clothing care continued to evolve. This led to less flammable solvents such as carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene.

In the 1930s, dry cleaning became more widespread. Perchloroethylene (perc) was a driving force for its growing popularity. Although effective, early processing brought both environmental and health concerns. Perc is still popular today, but there have been advancements to reduce exposure. In addition, there are many strict environmental guidelines in place to protect your community (and dry clean workers).

The dry cleaning industry rallied to find innovative solutions. Modern-day dry cleaning establishments have embraced greener solvents, such as liquid silicone, which offer exceptional cleaning power while being non-toxic and biodegradable. These eco-friendly solvents ensure that the fabrics’ integrity remains intact while providing an impeccable level of cleanliness.

Not only do advancements in dry cleaning technology protect the environment, but they also enhance the longevity and appearance of garments. Traditional cleaning methods, such as washing in water, can be abrasive to delicate materials and often result in discoloration, shrinkage, or even irreversible damage to intricate embroidery and beadwork.

Thomas Jennings’ Patent

Before Jolly’s discovery in France, Thomas L. Jennings filed for a “dry scouring” patent through the U.S. Patent Office. As a clothier and tailor, Jennings’ clients relied on him for their clothing care.

Without proper stain removal, his clients stopped wearing and trashing his designs. Instead of taking advantage of the situation, he wanted to find a solution that saved clothing from being tossed. Thomas Jennings experimented with various solutions and solvents.

After testing on a few fabrics, he found his solution! With this, he requested a patent. Certainly an accomplishment, but this dry scouring patent was so much more. Thomas L. Jennings is the first African-American man to receive a patent. In addition to paving the way, Jennings took his hard-earned money and put it towards various abolitionist activities. A true community hero!

Dry Cleaning Solvents’ Evolution

Fashion is ever-changing. The need for expert garment care is not. Dry cleaners play a vital role in your wardrobe.  When risks were discovered, the industry took them seriously and researched alternative solvents.

Hallak Cleaners is one of around a dozen certified couture dry cleaners in the world. Yes, the world. Specialized services such as designer fashion, casual wear, bed linens, table linens, suede, leather, and more. Delicate fashions like wedding gowns are also one of the most common items dry cleaned. Depending on the fabric and ornamentation, your trusted cleaners will determine the best dry cleaning process.

Perchloroethylene solvent (PCE or Perc)

Once considered a standard solvent, perc is a highly-effective stain remover and also gentle on fabric. The industry aimed to mitigate risks involved with perc usage. Here are a few key trouble areas that were addressed:

Closed-Loop Systems: Today’s dry cleaning machines are designed with a closed-loop system. This captures and recycles perc reducing emissions. Hallak is always looking for the latest in dry cleaning machines and safer solvents. 

Improved Filtration:  During the extraction process, advanced filtration systems remove impurities from the perc. By allowing the solvent for reuse, filtration reduces the need for fresh solvent. Less traces of solvent left equals less waste.

Regulatory Compliance: Stricter regulations and industry standards are in place and evolving. Dry cleaners must adopt all best practices to protect both employees and the community. Learn about Hallak’s green efforts here – including our EPA  Certificate of Environmental Stewardship.

Hydrocarbon  Solvents

Hydrocarbon  solvents revolutionized the dry cleaning industry. It is an effective solvent and is a safe and eco-friendly alternative. Exceptional cleaning power. Minimizes color fading. Less fabric deterioration. Your designer garments receive the utmost care and attention they deserve with minimal risk.

Best part? Cleaning with hydrocarbon solvents (and other organic solvents) pose no significant risks to human health or the environment.

Supercritical CO2

Supercritical CO2 is revolutionary, effective cleaning solvent. A true game changer, Supercritical CO2 offers superior cleaning capabilities without compromising fabric quality. It’s odorless, non-toxic, non-flammable, and leaves no harmful residue.

The Future of the Dry Cleaning Industry

There was a time when “dry cleaning” was considered a dirty industry. At times, it was a necessary evil for your wardrobe. Clean clothes sometimes require a different level of care outside of your domestic washing machine. Delicate clothing are often labeled “dry clean only” and should be followed.

As a family-owned and operated couture cleaner, we can assure you we are not evil. We care a lot about our employees, clients, and the environment. Hallak proudly leads the charge in adopting  modern machines and innovative practices. You invest in your wardrobe and we are invested in you. It is the reason we implement eco-friendly solvents, utilize cutting-edge technology, and regularly provide training.

By now, many clients are already aware that we were the first Manhattan-licensed GreenEarth cleaner. (Hallak has also been awarded several environmental certificates.) Today’s solvents are ideal for many reasons including their environmental-friendly ingredients and their effectiveness in cleaning. Sounds like a win-win for everyone.

We hope you have enjoyed the history of when dry cleaning was invented.


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