“I have a laundry list of things to do today.” It is one of those idioms I use a lot, but never really thought about until a few weeks ago when I uncovered a literal laundry list. A thin yellow slip of paper, pre-printed with numerous items of clothing and linens, this laundry list was issued on November 23, 1891 by the Salem Steam Laundry. Probably not surprising to any readers of this column, but research into the document touched on some very interesting tidbits about our community history and other ways in which our language and way of life has changed in the intervening 127 years.
The receipt itself is a treasure trove of information about the dressing practices and clothing vocabulary of the past. Even though our receipt is for 4 bed sheets and 7 pillow cases, the form has an impressive number of items you would be hard pressed to find around the house today. Shirts (not to be confused with Flannel Shirts or Under Shirts– separate items), Collars, Cuffs, Under Drawers, Cape Collars, Waists, Chemises, Drawers, and Corset Covers are no longer part of our daily attire.
The Salem Steam laundry was founded in 1889 by Colonel J. Olmstead (Colonel being his first name, rather than a title) and his brother Dorus. The brothers had experience operating a “hand laundry” in their hometown of Ionia, Michigan, but invested in newer technology when they moved to Salem. By 1918 the facility boasted (in particularly poetic style): “two forty horse power boilers to produce steam for operating machinery and washing purposes. There are seven hydraulic washers – mammoth fellows -- which revolve three and a half times one day and then the same number the other and so on until the clothes are clean. There are large and small power ironers. The large one is capable of ironing thirty-four feet per minute, and from four to eight people are required to feed the pieces and fold them as they are ironed.” A specialized steam cleaning process was touted as being particularly good for woolen garments. As one 1904 advertisement reads: “New woolen underwear should be sent to the Salem Steam Laundry and be cleaned. We have the only steam table in Oregon for this work and guarantee satisfaction. Those blankets probably need attention, too, and remember we have the only facilities for handling this work outside the woolen mill.”
When the Salem Steam Laundry started, most of the Salem laundry industry was run by individuals of Chinese ancestry. Whether influenced by fierce competition or by the virulent anti-Chinese sentiment in the West during this time, the Salem Steam Laundry ran advertisements declaring “No Chinese Employed.”
While the laundry started in South Salem, it quickly moved into a building on Liberty Street where they would operate for the next three decades. The new digs had an interesting history itself. The building started life as the first, First Methodist Church in Salem. Built in 1852, the building was moved to make way for the building of the current brick structure that still stands on the corner of Church and State Streets. The exact timeline and logistics of the building move is a bit hazy, but by 1890 the building and the Salem Steam Laundry were located on the east side of the street between State and Ferry Streets – just about where the driveway for Key Bank stands today.
Reading through advertisements, the business practices of the Salem Steam Laundry seem a bit odd by today’s standards. It was common practice to offer free pickup and delivery for orders throughout the community. One 1910 advertisement in the Salem High School Yearbook reads: “Our wagons go everywhere.” They also did a good trade in laundry by mail. If you didn’t want to rely on the postal service, the laundry had 35 “agencies” scattered around the state, which would forward laundry on to the Salem facility and serve as a pick up location. One such agency was located at R.G. Henderson’s grocery store at Chemawa, Oregon (then outside Salem and Keizer city limits), from which a “basket” left every Wednesday to be taken into town and processed. The prices also seem a bit outrageous. Our list shows a grand total of .25 cents for laundering and pressing 4 sheets and 7 pillow cases.
Colonel Olmstead got out of the laundry business in the early 1920s, selling out to the Weider Brothers, who owned laundry facilities around the region and modernized the business. Olmstead himself went on to operate an auto painting facility and serve as bookkeeper for the Salem Iron Works.
Salem Steam Laundry Timeline
1889 - Salem Steam Laundry Opens
1890 - Moves to building on South Liberty street
1903 - Advertisement in Capital Journal (May 18)
Not a Rival in Sight Anywhere. When the linen that has been done up at the Salem Steam Laundry is put in contrast with that laundried anywhere in Salem. The beauty of our laundry work makes us justly proud, and we feel like crowing every time we see the difference in our superb color and finish on the shirts, collars and cuffs done up by our methods with the linen worn by anyone laundried by any other process. Phone 411 – 230 Liberty Street.
1904- Advertisement Capital Journal (Oct 24)
That new woolen underwear should be sent to the Salem Steam Laundry and be cleaned. We have the only steam table in Oregon for this work and guarantee satisfaction. Those blankets probably need attention, too, and remember we have the only facilities for handling this work outside the woolen mill
1907 - Advertisement Salem Clarion Yearbook:
Clean Collars and Cuffs are what you want when you get them back from the laundry. Those wing point collars, which are so hard to have laundried right, are handled by a special machine, just installed. The rough edges, which make your neck sore, are made smooth. All our collar and cuff work is unsurpassable. Phone us when you want us to call for your work. Our wagons go everywhere.
1910- Advertisement in Clarion Salem High School Yearbook
Smooth Work….You’ll like the work we do on your shirts, collars, and cuffs. You’ll like the cleanness and life of the articles when you handle them. Our work is the kind that gives you satisfaction. We excel all others. Our wagons go everywhere.”
1921 - Last reference to Salem Steam Laundry in Salem City Directories
1938- Colonel Jay Olmstead Dies
 Salem Steam Laundry.” Oregon Statesman. 1918 Jan 1. Page 17. Accessed via newspapers.com.
 1893 Salem City directory lists four laundries in the city of Salem, three run by individuals of Chinese Ancestry (Gee Lee, Hong Sing Lung Co. and Sung Lung).
 Salem Steam Laundry.” Oregon Statesman. 1918 Jan 1. Page 17. Accessed via newspapers.com. States that the Salem Steam Laundry started in “the Old Brick Store in South Salem.” “In April, 1890, the laundry was moved to its present location, 136 South Liberty Street.”
 Maxwell, Ben. “News Files of Past Record Local Color.” Undated newspaper clipping, likely Salem area. MCHS 0083.043.0022.033.
 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1890 and 1897-updated through 1915. All show building in same space with
 Salem Steam Laundry List. WHC 2014.082.0216. “Work called for and delivered without charge.” Printed on receipt.
 Salem Steam Laundry List. WHC 2014.082.0216. “Orders by Mail or Express Receive Prompt Attention.” Printed on receipt.
 “Salem Steam Laundry.” Oregon Statesman. 1918 Jan 1. Page 17. Accessed via newspapers.com.
 Salem Steam Laundry List. WHC 2014.082.0216
 “Laundry Permit Issued to Weider Bros. Here.” Oregon Statesman 1924 Dec 30, page 8. “The Capital city plant ahs been operated by Weider Brothers for about seven and one-half years, and the Salem steam laundry about two years.” “Salem Laundry Building Ready for New Machinery.” Oregon Statesman. 1925 Mar 22. Pg 16
 Salem City Directory entries for 1824, 1926-27, 1928-29, 1930-31.