Drying Your Clothes The Old (Old!) Fashioned Way on the Upper West Side

This past weekend, I was scouting one of those gargantuan pre-war beauties along Riverside Drive. While in the basement, I accidentally walked into the laundry room and stumbled upon the coolest thing…

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Check out these amazing laundry drying cabinets, easily 100+ years old!

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Each slot features a vertical rack that slides out, with numerous rungs for clothes.

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I’m guessing this dates to the building’s original construction in the early-1900s – perhaps this was once an area where servants did the laundry for their employers? Also curious if the interior of the cabinets was originally heated. Update! As readers Steven and Tom reveal in the comments below, these are gas-fired clothes dryers, similar in design to the wooden, chimney-heated cabinets used by the Shakers.

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So funny to this early 20th century technology juxtaposed with that laundry money card dispensing machine on the right.

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13 comments

  1. Love it as I don’t like putting everything in the dryer!!

  2. steven kennedy

    Those are gas fired clothes dryers. Old technology. My dad was a commercial appliance repairman. I used to go to work with him in the early 50s and these were still in use in many buildings. No moving parts really so they rarely needed service. Just thrmostats and couplings.

  3. Yep – made famous by the Shakers. In the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire, they had giant racks just like the above (though all made of wood). They’d rout hot air through the cabinet, poaching heat from chimney systems. Ingenious! Found a few pictures on this site (not mine).

    http://www.galenfrysinger.com/new_hampshire_shaker_laundry.htm

  4. I did a quick search and found that the Bilmore Estate had something similar (scroll down to nearly 2/3s of the way down the page): http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/biltmore-techtour/1309 So interesting!!

  5. Hypothetically, this could have been part of a commercial steam laundry, a once-thriving industry serving those without running clean water, servants, or time to undertake the arduous hand labor of laundry. They certainly made ample use of such cabinets… but given the rather tony address, I suspect your hunch may be closer to the mark. Still, you might enjoy Arwen Mohun’s book Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880–1940 on this forgotten chapter of American urban history.

  6. My old apartment in Murray Hill has the same thing, but they were sealed shut a long time ago. We had modern dryers next to them.

  7. We had these in our former apartment on Riverside Drive. They were in use until one of the pieces of our clothing fell on the flames below and destroyed everyone’s clothing. When the insurance company found out what they were insuring the racks were taken out!

  8. My former apartment on West End had the same thing.

  9. I grew up at East 85 & Madison. There was a laundry room in the basement with these gas powered dryers, also washing machines with rollers to squeeze out the excess moisture. The room was humming Monday through Friday with laundresses in uniform. The center of the room was taken up with ironing boards. The room must have been very hot at times, but I remember a cheerful, social atmosphere. The building was completed in about 1923. My family lived there from 1942 to 1963.

  10. We have these in our building and, although three are in need of repair, they’re very popular. Steam pipes do indeed run in the floor-level providing drying for the laundry hung there. (FYI, ours are a bit prettier, not painted, and we hope to start restoring them this summer.)

  11. olympiasepiriot

    Many years ago, I lived in a building in Scotland that was built in the mid-1800’s that had a huge drying room. There were multitudes of steam pipes running through the room along the walls and open slat shelves in alcoves around the place, drying racks on pulleys you could lower from the ceiling and other nifty accessories. I really liked it and decided that if I ever built my own home, I’d find a way to incorporate the idea. No one ever stole anything in that room. I was pretty amazed by that.

  12. Found online this issue of Architecture and Building magazine from 1916. Shows the then brand new gas dryer rack machines in laundry rooms at Astor Court (210 W 90, 205 W 89). They were located on the 13th floor roof penthouse level, which was originally built as servants quarters, maids rooms, and about 30 of these individual laundry rooms. I do not remember if these (presumably decommissioned) drying machines still existed on the penthouse when I was a kid there in the late 70s and early 80s, before these old laundry rooms were converted to apartments. I remember the rooms being used for storage. The article also shows awesome old photos of Astor Court’s original bathrooms, kitchen ovens and tiled kitchen floors. https://books.google.com/books?id=5x7nAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA110-IA16&lpg=PA110-IA16&dq=%22astor+court%22+dryers&source=bl&ots=J8g2Os4xTk&sig=czmSswjCwyCUmdECUjgryTZTCwE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=O2puVebkCMXdsAS8g4LQAg&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=%22astor%20court%22%20dryers&f=false

    • That’s a great link, Brian, thanks! Oh, if only I could wave a hand and have the racks looking as good as in that picture!

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