From the October 2009 issue of National Clothesline
Drycleaning’s American roots revealed
Move over, Monsieur Jolly. An American lays claim to the invention of modern drycleaning.
Jolly, a French tailor, has long been credited with an accidental discovery that led to drycleaning as we know it today. After spilling the contents of a paraffin lamp onto a greasy tablecloth, he watched as the stains disappeared. He went on to open the first drycleaning shop and the craft grew from there. So the story goes, with variations, including the date of the discovery, which is reported as 1825 in some sources and as the 1840s in others.
But an American received a patent for a drycleaning process well before even the earliest date attributed to Jolly’s discovery. This was brought to light at last month’s International Drycleaners Congress convention by Masashi Shimenoki of the Textile Care Information Service Inc. in Japan.
Speaking during a convention session in Beijing, China, last month Shimenoki reported that Thomas L. Jennings received a patent for his drycleaning process in 1821. According to the U.S. Patent Office, Jenning’s process, which he called “dry scouring,” is likely the first U.S. patent awarded to an African-American.
“I think it is remarkable news that the father of the drycleaning industry is an African-American, Thomas Jennings,” Shimenoki said in a follow-up e-mail after the convention, adding that it is an “honor for the USA and African-Americans.”
Details of Jennings’ patent were lost in a fire at the U.S. Patent Office in 1836, but his life, which included leadership in the movement for the abolition of slavery as well as success as a tailor and drycleaner, was documented by the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass in a memorial written upon Jenning’s death in 1859. He first published the article in his Frederick Douglass Paper. It was reprinted in the April, 1859, issue of The Anglo-African.
Of Jennings, Douglass wrote: “In his boyhood, Mr. Jennings served an apprenticeship with one of the most celebrated of the New York tailors. Soon after reaching manhood, he entered business on his own account, and invented a method of renovating garments, for which he obtained letters patent from the United States. Although it was well known that he was a black man of ‘African descent,’ these letters recognize him as a ‘citizen of the United States.’ This document, in an antique gilded frame, hangs above the bed in which Mr. Jennings breathed his last, and is signed by the historic names of John Quincy Adams and William Wirt, and bears the broad seal of the United States of America.”
Jennings was born in New York in 1791. As a young man, he was among volunteers who aided in digging trenches on Long Island during the War of 1812. Later, working as a clothier and tailor in New York, he attracted a strong following of customers.
However, he found that many of his customers were dismayed when their garments became soiled and, because of the material used, were unable to use conventional means to clean them. Thus people would either continue wearing the clothes in their soiled condition or simply discard them.
While Jennings would have profited from making and selling new clothes to replace the soiled items, he also hated to see the garments, which he had worked hard to create, cast aside. He set out experimenting with different solutions and cleaning agents, testing them on various fabrics, until he found the right combination to effectively treat and clean them, thus coming up with the method that led to his patent for “dry scouring.”
Success in business let Jennings support a large family, including purchasing the freedom of some family members still in bondage. One of his daughters, Matilda, followed in his footsteps to become “one of the best dressmakers in New York city,” according to Douglass.
“He taught all his children some useful trades, and accustomed them betimes to rely on themselves for their support,” Douglass wrote.
Jennings also supported the abolitionist cause. He was one of five New York delegates to the First Annual Convention of Free People of Color held in Philadelphia in 1831 and was elected assistant secretary by the convention. He continued to serve in that capacity at two subsequent conventions.
Jennings was also one of the originators of the Legal Rights' Association in New York City and was serving as its president at the time of his death.
“This is a noble picture of a noble man. Born in a slave state, and of a race held in slavery, living in the midst of all the crushing influences which human prejudice and caste could heap upon him, he yet fulfilled all the purposes of an upright man, a useful citizen, and a devoted Christian,” Douglass wrote.
“Mr. Jennings was one of that large class of earnest, upright colored men who dwell in our large cities. He was not an exception, but a representative of his class, whose noble sacrifices, and unheralded labors are too little known to the public.”
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