I will freely admit that I don’t understand how dry cleaners work.  How do they get that stuff clean?  And without water!

Everyone says, “They use chemicals.”  They say it like they’ve solved the ancient mystery of dry cleaning: “It’s chemicals!” 

“Oh, thanks.  I’m glad I asked you.”

That means nothing to me.  “Chemicals” is a word that people use when they have no idea what they’re talking about, but it sounds scientific and they’re technically not wrong.  Everything in the world is made up of chemicals.  Do they use water?  Water is made up of chemicals.  It’s like how people say, “I don’t want to eat those vegetables.  They have chemicals.” 

I think they picture farmers onloading trucks with these big sacks labeled just, “chemicals.” 

(They get it generic.)

No, we have no idea what they use.  The whole place is shrouded in mystery.  I personally picture a guy in the back rubbing the clothes furiously with the corner of a towel.  You try to look at what’s going on in the back while you’re there, but all you see is a confusing mass of hangers and machines and pipes and steam, and when they’re done, they put your clothes on a little amusement park ride so all the suits can go around in a circle every time someone comes by to get his stuff. 

I’m not sure even they know how they clean it, because when they tell you when to come back, it always sounds like they’re guessing: “Tuesday by 7?  Wednesday by… I want to say 4:30?” 

And the whole thing is a pain, because you have to go twice.  You put “dry cleaners” on your list, and then you come home and put it back on your list.  It’s almost worth dousing it in chemicals yourself. 

I’m not sure what’s going on there.  There are thousands of clothes going around on that ride; there’s no way that some of these clothes haven’t been making this hakafah for several years. There’s never more than two people on line in front of you.  Shouldn’t there be a line out the door, like the bagel store on a taanis, considering how many clothes are up here?  All those clothes are done.  Where is everybody?

I do have a theory.  You know how, when you have a brand-new pushka, you put some of your own money in to start it off, so you don’t just go over to the first guy and shake an empty pushka at him?  (This is especially important if you’re collecting tzedakah in, for example, a paper cup.  Or your bare hand.)  The people who work there just put all their clothes up to make it seem busy.  They don’t want you to see one shirt going around – “Bzzzt!” – just flowing in the wind. 

Plus, they want to block your view of what’s going on in the back.

Also, I’m guessing that people forget to pick up the things they don’t immediately need.  Or they don’t have storage at home, so they bring it to the cleaners and pay a small cleaning fee which, as they see it, comes with free storage for six months. 

I think it’s also possible that they have a clothes-rental business going on at the same time, where they rent people nice clothes for 24 hours.  At the very least, the workers are wearing the clothes themselves.  That’s why they want you to come back in two days. 

“Don’t show up tomorrow.  I’ll be wearing it.” 

I find that there are two kinds of people when it comes to dry cleaning:

  1. There are people who believe that everything they own needs to be dry cleaned. (I don’t know how they think people used to wash anything in the old days.) These people are afraid of washing anything themselves, lest they shrink it.  Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever shrunk anything, though that is my theory on why I keep losing socks in the laundry.  I’m like, “Why are some of my socks missing?  And why did the kids put their socks in my personal load?” 
  2. And then there are people who bring items to the cleaners only when something is so dirty that only the cleaners can saver it, and also right before Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. In fact, it often doesn’t occur to me for a long time that something can even be dry cleaned. (Can they do a couch?) 

For example, it took almost 16 years of marriage for it to occur to me that I could dry clean my challah cover.  I’m not even sure how it got dirty; I take it off the table before everyone starts eating.  Yet it had white splotches all over it. 

Maybe it’s the salt.  Picture your car after the salt truck passes by.

I actually wasn’t sure if they’d ever washed a challah cover before, but I did figure that seeing as they’re in a Jewish neighborhood, they’d take it in stride. 

“What’s this?” 

“It’s for covering my bread.” 

“Velvet keeps it fresh?” 

“No, it’s decorative.” 

“Why is there blood?”

They probably can figure it out, because there’s a picture of a challah on it. 

“So um, what are all the fringes for?  Are they like tzitzis?”

Plus, with any item you give these people, chances are that there was someone before you who explained to them about tzitzis and challah covers and sefer Torah mantels.

“And this thing here is a snood.  It’s definitely not a stretched-out sock.”

All they know is that the Yidden use a lot of little things made out of velvet, and we sometimes wear plain white dress robes, but they don’t complain, because what other culture wears dry-clean-only clothing once a week, minimum, and then eats a huge meal in it, in which we’re getting even our challah covers dirty? 

We also give them a large number of ties.  (I’m guessing.  It only recently occurred to me that you could clean ties.)

So if you’re a dry-cleaner, and someone hands you something and says, “This is a tallis,” you just write it down and hand them a ticket.  If you’re smart, the only question you ask is, “What color is it supposed to be?”

They don’t ask questions, and we don’t ask questions.

But the truth is that Jews definitely do ask questions, so I looked up some basic facts about the history of dry cleaning:

- The secrets of dry-cleaning are very ancient, although the amusement-park-ride is a lot newer.  We always talk about how people used to wash their clothes in the river, but if they didn’t want to do that, for whatever reason, they brought it to the dry cleaner.  There has always been a need for alternative cleaning methods, so long as people have been drinking coffee while steering their chariots and falling asleep with gum.

- “Dry clean” doesn’t mean “no liquid”; it means “no water.”  “Dry wine” doesn’t mean “no liquid” either.  It means chemicals.

- The Ancient Roman dry cleaners used to use ammonia, which they made themselves.  And the government taxed that ammonia.  The Ancient Romans then got their clothes back, took one sniff, and said, “No thanks.  We’ll wear bedsheets.”

- Modern dry cleaning was discovered by accident in 1825 by Jean Baptiste Jolly, when his maid spilled kerosene on a tablecloth and he noticed that the spot ended up cleaner than ever.  He then conducted an experiment in which he soaked his entire tablecloth in kerosene, and he found that it got really clean, at least until his maid knocked over a candlestick and blew up his dining room. 

- Before he knew it, his idea spread like wildfire (oy), and other cleaners were doing the same thing, using petrol, turpentine, and gasoline.  Eventually, someone developed chemicals to use that did not involve dowsing everyone’s clothes in explosive liquids.

- In those days, smoking was a lot more dangerous.  Also, most cities wouldn’t even allow dry-cleaning to take place within their city limits, so the clothes had to be shipped to factories down the river, often without the use of a boat.  They just put them in the river and let go.  So in general, it would take about six months to get your kittel back.

- There was also a man named William Joseph Stoddard, who developed the Stoddard solvent as a slightly-less flammable alternative to gasoline.  He put up big signs in the window: “Now slightly less flammable!”  The solvent wouldn’t ignite in any temperature below 100 degrees.

- After WWI, dry cleaners switched to using chlorine, and then eventually to perchloroethylene, which is where we stand today, and which, if not cleaned off properly afterwards, can make a person very sick.

- But not to worry: The clothes are cleaned in an airtight machine that, to the untrained eye, looks a lot like a washing machine.  It might actually be a washing machine.  All the trained eyes work at the dry cleaners, so I wouldn’t necessarily trust them.

- From what I can tell, it takes about 15 minutes to actually clean your clothes, and then another two days to get the dry-cleaning chemicals out of them.

- Also, when you give the cleaners something that doesn’t need dry cleaning, they just throw it in the actual washing machine.  It’s a lot safer.

- Despite my research, I still don’t know why there are so many clothes up there.  I think some of them have been hanging there since ancient Rome.  Particularly the bedsheets.

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia, a monthly humor columnist, and has written six books, all published by Israel Book Shop.  He also does freelance writing for hire.  You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.