Laundry Lessons: A History of Commercial Laundry Services

Laundry Lessons: A History of Commercial Laundry Services

Did you know that laundry services can be traced as far back as ancient Rome? Read our article to learn even more about the history of laundry.

Laundry is one of those tasks that many people dread, especially if it’s on such a large scale as it is in the hospitality industry. This isn’t a chore faced exclusively in modern times, but one that has been faced by our ancestors for centuries - even millennia.

From hand washing in rivers to the humble washing machine and large-scale commercial laundry services, let us take you on a journey through the fascinating history of laundry.

From Roman Fullers to Hotel Laundry Services: Commercial Laundry Origins


Roman Empire

As with many other processes in life, large-scale laundering is credited with taking place as far back as the Roman Empire. Unlike more recent patriarchal associations that pair women with the task of laundering, in these ancient times, the task was actually delegated to the men - specifically, these men were referred to as ‘fullones’ (singularly known as a ‘fullo’).

They were tasked with the responsibility of washing clothes throughout the city, making them some of the most successful and highly paid workers.

There were three main processes involved in laundering during these times:



The first stage involved treating clothes with a mixture of water and some type of alkali, in order to more easily separate dirt from the clothes. This was done in small tubs, whereby a fullo would stamp on the cloth (agitating it just as washing machines do), scrub it and wring it out.

One of the common alkaline substances used to treat the cloth, controversially, was human and animal urine. Whilst this sounds unsanitary, the natural bleaching properties of the ammonia within urine helped to remove stains and odours.

Because the clothes worn in ancient Rome were made using wool, they would become dirty very easily, with whitening such cloth being an important part of the cleaning process.


A stick was used to beat the clothes and loosen any leftover dirt, before they went into a basin of clean water from the city’s urban water system in order to be rinsed.

This usually consisted of three to four connected basins, rather than a singular one, with clean water starting at one end and dirty water being left at the other - the clothes were then transported from one section to the next in the opposite direction, starting at the end where the water would be dirtiest and finishing in the clean water.

If there was still an apparent stain, then the process would start again, however if the clothes were properly clean then they’d be moved to the drying stage.


Garments were squeezed to wring out excess water, before being hung outside and left to air dry - similar to how you would dry your domestic washing today. Once dry, they would then be brushed with thistle-like plants, which was done to remove any loose lint and raise the nap for comfort against the skin.

They would then be hung on a basket-shaped woven structure, known as a viminea cavea, and sulphur was burned underneath it - the smoke of which was effective at bleaching the clothes. Once the clothes were dry and white, they would then treat the cloth with a fine earth, known as Cimolian earth. This consisted of a variety of clays, similar to the fuller’s earth or kaolin we see today, which further increased its whiteness and maintained the quality of the cloth.

Occasionally, the garments would also be pressed in a screw press before being returned to customers.

Industrial Revolution

Whilst handwashing was considered the norm for many years since ancient times, the Industrial Revolution brought with it a defining change to laundry processes: the blueprints for modern washing machines.

Initially, laundry was an incredibly laborious task, requiring workers to rub clothes against washboards then wring them out by hand. This all changed in the 19th century, when the process was mechanised.

A hand-operated washing machine was essentially invented, whereby a handle was turned in order to move paddles that sat inside a tub, working to agitate the clothing inside. Not long later, in the 1900s, electric clothes washers were introduced; these featured a motor that would rotate the tub, acting as the basis for the modern washing machines used today.

Many of these newly invented machines were also accompanied by a mangle, which was a hand-operated wringer that removed the need for clothes to be twisted manually to remove excess water.

Self-Service Laundry

Whilst washing machines are very much common in modern times, they haven’t always been accessible, and still remain that way today for many individuals. Not only are washing machines expensive to buy and run, but they take up a decent amount of space.

This has been the case ever since washing machines were first introduced on the public market, with laundrettes quickly becoming a popular commercial service that allowed individuals to benefit from the convenience of a washing machine where having one at home wasn’t possible - as is still the case for many, especially those who reside in flats and live in urban areas.

Launderettes can be either attended, partially attended or unattended, with the latter two being the most common. Thanks to modern technological advancements, many of the commercial washing machines featured in a launderette have an integrated card payment system, offering customers an easier way to pay whilst reducing the chances of being targeted for theft (from the coins that the machines would otherwise collect).

Commercial Laundry Market

Laundry isn’t only a domestic requirement, but there are many modern industries that have a requirement for commercial laundering on a larger scale. This notably includes businesses within the hospitality sector, including:

  • Hotels
  • BnBs
  • Spas
  • Restaurants
  • Cafés
  • Catering services
  • Assisted living homes

Laundry is an essential process for each of these business types for various reasons. Firstly, hygiene is incredibly important to each, whether that be ensuring clean bed sheets for guests, clean and presentable tablecloths and napkins to preserve reputation or clean and uncontaminated chef whites and kitchen linens.

In order to clean these different types of linens, industrial machines are required that can handle large-capacity loads. As efficient and effective as these machines are, they are large to store and expensive to run, which can actually have a negative financial impact if laundry processes are handled internally within these businesses, hence why they are instead outsourced to commercial services.

Sustainable Practices

Modern laundry is characterised by the use of effective detergents, more technological machinery and streamlined operations. However, there is a downside - especially in relation to commercial laundry services: they are very much energy and water intensive.

Given the current state of the planet and the impact of the ongoing climate crisis, it’s more important than ever to reduce the negative environmental impacts such large-scale washing processes have. So, what are the ways this can be done?

Natural Detergents

Many detergents available on the market are full of chemicals. Whilst these are effective at cleaning fabrics, they can be harmful to the environment. Some of these chemicals can contain toxic ingredients that can go on to pollute waterways and ecosystems when disposed of.

Thankfully, there are more sustainable detergents available. These feature ingredients that are safe for both humans and the environment. Furthermore, they usually come in refillable or sustainable packaging, further reducing waste pollution.

Energy-Efficient Machines

Traditional commercial washing machines are highly water and energy consumptive, which not only impacts the environment but can cost businesses lots of money. Thanks to advancements in technology, there are more sustainable commercial washing machines that are being produced to combat this.

These machines are much more energy efficient and are able to control detergent and water levels based on the weight of the load within the machine, ensuring only the minimum required amount of each is used to minimise waste.

Recycling Water

Washing machines take in fresh, clean water to wash fabrics, becoming what’s known as greywater (also used to refer to water that has been used in baths, showers and bathroom sinks) once finished washing. This water is then wasted by flowing into the sewer system. However, there is an option to stop this from happening.

Greywater can actually be effectively recycled, allowing it to be reused for other purposes, such as irrigation, toilet water or other laundry purposes.

By incorporating a water recycling system into commercial laundry practices, this ensures that the life cycle for usable water is expanded, whilst reducing waste and new water use. Considering that commercial laundry uses so much water in the first place, offsetting this by implementing a water recycling system is a great sustainable measure that can be taken.

Laundry Services in London

If you run a hospitality business in the central hub of the country, then you’ll want to trust a laundry provider that you can rely on. That’s where we come in here at Johnsons London Linen.

Gone are the days of searching ‘laundry service near me’; here at Johnsons London Linen, we offer a comprehensive linen hire and laundry service to suit your needs - there’s a reason we’ve been the capital’s leading linen and laundry hire supplier since 1935!

One of the things that sets us apart from other laundry service providers is our commitment to sustainability. We invest in processes to make us environmentally progressive, and have even won a number of awards recognising our work in this area.



Our sustainable practices are reflected by the following:

  • Use of modern machinery that is more energy efficient
  • Water recycling
  • Eco-friendly cleaning products
  • Energy efficient lighting
  • Packaging reductions
  • Lower ‘linen miles’

Outsourcing your commercial laundry is demonstrably more sustainable than domestic processing, so by using our rental service you can be assured of the most environmentally friendly solution for cleaning your uniforms and linen.

We also offer a drop-off and pick-up service included in our flexible contracts. This means you can arrange a laundry frequency that suits you, with everything being taken care of from start to finish without you even needing to leave your business premises.

Get in Touch

Are you ready to invest in reliable services that deliver consistent results? That’s a guarantee when you entrust us with your linen hire and laundry requirements here at Johnsons London Linen.

Don’t just take it from us - take it from our existing customers! Our most recent customer satisfaction survey saw us scoring a whopping 87.5%.

If you’d be interested in learning more about our linen hire, then don’t hesitate to browse our range of chefs wear and table linen products - we’re proud to operate a circular process by offering this alongside our commercial laundry service.

Get in touch with us today to discuss your requirements in more detail.

Published on: Mar 18, 2024

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