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Mar 14, 2012

Ways Done in the Past - Laundry Services

Launderers working in Stamford Canal, Singapore in the 1920s.


Orchard Road near Dhoby Ghaut in the 1920s.


Old clothes irons heated with burnt charcoal in the 1980s.

Dhoby Ghaut or Dhobi Ghat (धोबी घाट) literally means washing place in Hindi, from dhobi "washerman" or one that does laundry and ghat, generically meaning a large open space. As a place, Dhoby Ghaut lies along the southern end of Orchard Road.

Typically in India, Dhobis call on regular clients, collect their dirty clothes and then take them to the Dhobi Ghats. The name is reminiscent of the famous Dhobi Ghat of Mumbai, India, which has rows of concrete wash pens, each with its own flogging stone. The Dhobi sloshes dirty linen into a soapy water mixture, thrashing them with the flogging stones, and then puts the linen into huge vats of starch. After which being dried, they are ironed and delivered to the owners. This is however not a standard practice of dhobis in general. In a large number of areas in the country, dhobis have migrated to washing machines and dryers, using the modern detergents.

In the olden days in Singapore, washing machines and refrigerators in the households were a luxury, not a necessity.

Nowadays, affordable electronic devices in various brands, models or sizes are almost available in every home to save time and convenience for the family.

When I was young at Bukit Ho Swee, my mother used the old-fashioned wooden washing board for laundry daily.

The tub which mother used was twice the size as that shown in this drawing.


A big tub filled with water for washing the clothes for a family of four adults and a child almost daily; and occasional cleaning of room curtains, the pillows, bolsters and blankets, especially before the Chinese New Year.

Filmlet on TV in 1973 for the "Water is Precious" campaign. Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore.

The type of washing board and the way done to wash clothing in the past was the same as the photo.

A new washing wooden board cost $9.90 today. During the kampong days, each cost only $2.00 or $3.00 each. Photo credit: Chong Wai Fun. Acknowledgement with thanks.

Washing of clothes in the homes were commonly used with soap bars in the 1960s and then changed to the use of detergent powder.

The huge "Labour Brand Soap" advertisement billboard displayed prominently above the former People's Park in 1959.

This was the "Labour Brand" soap bars which my mother used for washing the clothes in the 1950s. It was tedious and hard work to do laundry this way.

She had to soap the clothes with her hands to rubbed against the wooden washing board and cleared away the dirt with the water in the basin. A second round had to clear away the soapy water and rinse the clothes with another basin of clean water to get the job done.

Just imagaine how much time and energy she could have saved if she had a washing machine in those days the ways done in the past...no wonder she had often had body ache and her hands rough and soaked too long in the water.



A brand of detergent powder, "Tide" was withdrawn from the Singapore and Malaysia market many years ago. In Malay, "tide" sounds like "tahik" which means "defecation".




The ways done by "dry-cleaning" or laundry shops were curated from archived photo with the courtesy of National Archives of Singapore and acknowledged with thanks to share on this blog.

Since time immemorial when people need to appear in public with clothing, clothes need to be washed and dried before wearing. Nudist camps an exception, but banned in Singapore though.

In 1913, a laundry was dried near an open drain in this photo.


Laundry-men in the 1900s.

Dry-cleaning shops or laundries in the 1980s

The last laundry shop "Victoria Dry Cleaning" in 1982 was demolished for urban renewal programmes.

Ah Kow Laundry Dry Cleaning

In 1950s, Seiclene Laundry and Singapore Steam Laundry where my elder sisters worked, were located opposite Delta Circus near Beo Crescent where my family lived before the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961.

My blogger friend Victor Koo took up the challenge to pose "Old Singapore Quiz (12) - Circus, Circa, Circle... - Answers" in October, 2009 here with information about the Singapore Steam Laundry. Thank you, Victor.

The smaller factory with laundry services was located next to Singapore Steam Laundry was Seiclene Laundry & Drycleaning at River Valley Road. Its main customers were the hotels, hospitals and other business enterprises of hospitality industry.

Many tourists and visitors who visit Singapore for the first time found the various innovative ways of drying clothes in public on sunny days a common sight in unique, surprising Singapore.

As Singaporeans, its a way of our lifestyle and nothing strange or funny.

Thanks to Divine Providence who blessed us with bright sunshine as an island in the sun throughout the year, except during the monsoon seasons.

Why waste the free solar energy and power to dry the clothings in Singapore?

An excerpt from Solar Energy Power Pte Ltd, Singapore with relevant information:
In an age where climate change threatens the survival of generations to come, the impetus for the development of clean energy is at an all-time high. The added need for energy diversification due to high fossil fuel prices and recent technological advances has also fuelled global interest in clean energy and in particular, solar energy.
Please feel free to introduce our foreign friends and show them how ways are done in Singapore to hang out the clothings on bamboo poles from high-rise apartments to dry; not flags of unknown nations.

Undergarments are displayed...Oops, I mean items not for public viewing or exposed under the sun to dry. Other items included are pillows, bolsters, blankets, mattresses and the children's soft toys.

Clothings on bamboo poles hanging from the windows of HDB flats.




Thanks to Dr Tan Wee Kiat of ReTRIeVIA who kindly emailed an additional set of old laundry photos of P. Suppiah Laundry at St. Georges Road, Singapore.

Photo credit to his friend Mr Christian Choo of ZigZag Learning , as acknowledged with much appreciation.

P. Suppiah Laundry had survived the dry cleaning business for decades in spite of stiff competition against the coin-operated launderettes in various convenient locations in the neighbourhood.

Please take a look at the resourceful and innovative ways done for drying the clothings in the housing estates. The ways done to wash dirty linens in public in the past were never done in the Stamford Canal in 1920...alternative ways and means were found to adapt to space constraint and shortage of land. Carry on with the business in whatever ways as shown in the photos...

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3 Comments:

Blogger lim said...

It's amazing that the Stamford Canal was a once a stream flowing with clean water fit for washing clothes. No wonder the sultan built his abode on Fort Canning Hill.

The wooden washing board is really an interesting piece of equipment. It can be used for foot therapy, and of course for punishment by making the person kneel on it.

March 15, 2012 at 10:42 AM  
Blogger mrdobi seo said...

I got my suit dry cleaned with Mr Dobi Dry Cleaning Singapore. They have a very thorough laundry/ dry clean service and their staff are also really helpful.

August 1, 2013 at 5:40 PM  
Blogger Daphne Lim said...

Good to see the History of the Laundry services. The laundry services have been changed now as compared to the past. For laundry services I would recommend Fresh & Clean Dry Cleaning Singapore.

December 20, 2013 at 6:08 PM  

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