White Noise
Made in White City

Gossip, Play, Wait:
Time and the Launderette

When patience runs out, play is born. Edwina Attlee from the Bartlett School of Architecture explores why waiting that is so inherent to launderettes have made them places of private solace as well as public scrutiny.

WORDS – Edwina Attlee

Play seems to me to be much closer to boredom than we give it credit for. Often it is only boredom that will provide me with the opportunity to play a game, or it is the condition in others that I can prey upon to get them to play with me. Sometimes I will be driven to playing at a practice, like writing or drawing or learning another very stilted song on a stringed instrument, just so that I have something to do. Play is not all whimsy and glee; it develops rather often from a numbness, a wallowing, a delay.

The closeness of play to these sorrowful states is very much smoothed over by accounts that seek to celebrate play’s value, its developmental qualities, its wonder. But of course the real magic of play is that it can come from nothing, and it depends on that nothing, because it involves imagination. Imagination is a critical stance on a current situation, an invention that permits you to escape it, or transform it, or mute its deadening torpor. There are over forty-six different definitions for the word in my shorter Oxford dictionary (noun and verb) so I won’t waste your time here telling you that there are many different forms of and ways to play. My beef is with the pretence that play is all fun and games and the idea that being unoccupied is somehow dangerous. 

Roland Barthes has a lovely phrase where he refers to play with "the useless detail"; he is talking about the pleasures of reading literature and textual play, but the phrase seems to sum up the sweetest twist of play, the twist that seizes upon an irrelevance and reinterprets it. I will be interested in this essay in the moment that precedes this twisting, about the state that makes it possible. This is the state of un-occupation, stillness, waiting.

Inherent in the action of waiting is that thing or time you are waiting for. One of the best places to observe waiting, or to do some waiting of your own, is the launderette. This is a shop that can be found on most good high streets or parades, where people can wash and dry (and occasionally have ironed) their clothes. In the launderette you have to wait for the washer or drier to finish. And while you are waiting, expectant, hopeful, apprehensive or bored, you are in the stages before play, before, perhaps, a daydream. Because waiting is always judged against the thing you wait for, it is seen as muted and dulled experience; it is not yet, it is almost. Waiting is characterised by lack and desire but it is also lack and desire made routine. In the launderette this lack is permitted to spread itself out, to become proprietorial and expansive. Because of its placid emptiness, it is ripe for filling.

The English launderette is a warm, soapy, humming space where you can be left alone for an hour or two with just the machines to keep you company. It is a technical space, a space of necessity, and a space like that of Pierre Mayol’s neighbourhood, which is neither entirely public nor completely domestic: it is a place where the domestic strays out into a more public (or more visible) sphere. Mayol writes that the home and the neighbourhood are "the only places where in different ways one can do what one wants."1 In the strayed domestic space of the launderette, customers enjoy a similar willfulness. They choose how to wait. The launderette is at once a deeply practical space, where clothes get clean, and an irrational space, where time can be spent on things it has not been programmed for. Guy Rosolato writes, "If I read and I daydream, my reading is thus a sort of impertinent absence."2 In the everyday reading of the city, the launderette allows for this kind of delinquency. 

Mary Douglas wrote about pollution behaviour as that which "condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications."3 This has particular significance for thinking about the way the launderette and its users are thought of today. Looking at the launderette shows us that time has come to be the quality that most disturbs society, and that its limits, boundaries, uses and abuses are policed as rigorously as the edges and limits of bodies and spaces. This is why daydreaming can be categorised as delinquency and why people are so eager to characterise play as having results, deliverables and effects.

The dismissal of the launderette’s many functions has been written into British planning policy, with the Town and Country Planning Order (General Permitted Development) of 2016 making it possible to convert launderettes into housing. As the MP Ruth Cadbury pointed out in the debate in the House of Commons on the subject: "Government policy is based on a presumption that we do not need launderettes anymore."4 This assumption looks past the many people who by choice and circumstance depend upon, and enjoy using, their local launderette. 


Britain’s first self-service, coin-operated launderette opened for a six-month trial at 184 Queensway in Bayswater on 1st May 1949. The local paper publicised the event, declaring: "All that housewives have to do is bring the washing, put it in the machine and come back 30 minutes later (charge 2s 6d for 9lbs)."5 Laundromats had been in existence in America since 1936 and were seen by washing-machine companies as a simple way to introduce people to their product and incite them to buy one for their homes (though for most this was still an outlandish suggestion).6 The Queensway branch was a success and a series of other Bendix launderettes were opened across London. By 1954 there were 700 in the country and they continued to open at a rate of ten or twenty a week.7 Their early use was hindered by the perception that going out of the house with your washing involved exposure and indicated a form of exhibitionism. The social research organisation Mass Observation wrote:

Many people seem unwilling to parade their more personal garments in front of a shop full of people, and, possibly as a result, launderettes have become known as "gossip shops for lazy people."8

This stigma is in full working order today even if the launderette itself is in decline. In the 1980s, there were over 12,000 launderettes in the UK; today there are fewer than 3,000.9 Although most households have their own washing machine, people will use a launderette for large washes (duvets, curtains) and if their machine breaks down. Those who do not have machines generally do not have either the space or the money for them; this includes students, the elderly and people who are new to the country or in temporary accommodation. There are therefore two categories of customers, the regular and the irregular. The stigma spotted by Mass Observation in the 1950s captures the uncomfortable position of the launderette as a space that inspires (at least in people’s imaginations) both gossip and laziness. It is simultaneously a space of transfer and mixing, of languor and time-wasting. Like the home, it is a place of and outside society, but unlike the home you cannot police its edges.

The stigma has attached itself not so much to the gossip but to the people doing it, the ‘lazy people’. Laziness suggests inactivity, waste and deviance. We can think of the slacker, the scrounger, the truant; we can think of the outlaw. Michel de Certeau writes that the lazy man is one step away from the dying man and almost as much of a problem in the eyes of society. The lazy man is "a subject that doesn’t work", "intolerable in a society in which the disappearance of subjects is everywhere compensated for and camouflaged by the multiplication of tasks to be performed."10 In the 1950s, laziness was perhaps reasonably attributable to those who used launderettes because washing at home was such comparatively hard work. These days laziness as an idea has attached itself subtly but firmly to those who use launderettes, giving rise to the sense that they are in some way out of order. This is the order of affluence, aspiration and activity; it is an order that avoids waiting at all costs. Certeau writes that ours is "a society that officially recognises 'rest' only in the forms of inertia or waste":11

The absence of work is non-sense; it is necessary to eliminate it in order for the discourse that tirelessly articulates tasks and constructs the Occidental story of ‘there’s always something to do’ to continue.12

This insight is borne out by a cursory glance at advertisements today that describe a climate where waiting is equivocated with wasting. These are all from a single underground platform on the same day:

Think of a book and start reading it in 60 seconds. (Kindle)

Fed up of waiting, waiting for a train, waiting for the barista to make your coffee... (Emmi Caffe Latte)

Anything worth doing is worth doing faster. (BlackBerry PlayBook)13

These time and task-based sentiments echo early advertisements for washing machines with their emphasis on speed and relative values of time.

The new Hoover washing machine is here to set you free. MUCH MORE TIME FOR YOURSELF... MORE ENERGY FOR PLEASURE.

You set it and forget it! Bendix automatically gives you the time of your life.14

This equivalence of speed with success, of stillness or slowness with waste, is one aspect of the refusal to see the need for launderettes. The spaces also suffer from a historic refusal to recognise housework as work, and to denigrate the work of those who clean. 

The ordering of people in terms of their proximity to dirt operates both in relation to perceived personal dirtiness and responsibilities for cleaning dirt away. Dealing with physical dirt is both mundane and messy. Cleaning is a continual activity, yet not something we all do. In fact the doing, or not, of dirty work is divided down lines of class, ethnicity and gender – the most powerful social divides in contemporary life. It is those on the ‘losing’ sides of those divides who clean most – the poor, women and people of colour – while those with the social and economic power to avoid it attempt to do so... dirt and cleaning exist within and constitute social relations both within and outside domestic environments.15

It is significant that those in positions of social and economic power are basing policy on an inability to see the need for a social provision they do not themselves need. When launderettes were introduced, and well into the 70s, local councils ran municipal wash houses and laundries to accommodate the many people who could not afford or did not have space for a washing machine. As the competition with launderettes increased, councils stepped back from offering the provision and left it in the hands of these private (and often very profitable) enterprises. Today, there are still many people who depend upon launderettes – their regular customers. There are also a large unpredictable proportion of people who will come to depend upon one, however briefly. The apparent invisibility of both groups does not reduce their right to access spaces like these. Ruth Cadbury, MP for Brentwood and Isleworth, argued this in her bid to have the 2016 planning policy halted or altered:

In areas such as mine there are large numbers of people living on low incomes in poor-quality private sector housing or in overcrowded flats with different tenures. Sometimes a washing machine is not provided; sometimes a poor-quality washing machine breaks down. If someone is on a very low income and their washing machine breaks down, that is a serious catastrophe. If someone has young children or is caring for somebody with disabilities who needs laundry and bedding changed every day, they need a launderette nearby that they can get to. A washing machine breaking down is a serious crisis for many people on low incomes.16

Beyond their function of getting clothes clean – permitting people to keep going to work, to wear clean clothes, to sleep in clean bedclothes – launderettes are spaces where people meet informally, where they check in with one another, or sit silently in the company of others. This kind of informal contact is particularly important for people who are tethered to the space of their home by small children, working patterns, or problems of access.

The waiting that happens in the space, the apparent wasting of time, is what makes this possible. Play with the useless detail is not an indulgence, it is what makes life livable.

Edwina Attlee was a speaker at the Museum of London's Playing Out salon. The series continues here.

1. Mayol, p.11.
2. Guy Rosolato, Essais sur le symbolique (Paris: Garnier, 1969) p.288.
3. Douglas, Purity & Danger, p.38.
4. General Committees Commons debate, 15th June 2016.
5. Kynaston, p.325.
6. T. Kempner, ‘Costs and Prices in Launderettes’, The Journal of Industrial Economics 8 (June 1960), p.217. (pp.217-220) A modest electric washing machine with mangle attached was the equivalent of six weeks worth of average wages. Stanley Bloom The Launderette, A history (London: Duckworth, 1988) p.10.
7. Coming Out in the Wash p.10.
8. Coming Out in the Wash p.14.
9. Yasmeen Khan, The Rise and Fall of the Launderette BBC Magazine (August 2010).
10. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Stephen Rendall (London: University of California Press, 1988) p.190.
11. Certeau, Practice Vol.1. p.192.
12. Certeau, Practice Vol.1. p.191.
13. Advertisements for Kindle, Emmi’s and Blackberry, photographed September 2011. 
14. Advertisements for Hoover, 1951 and Bendix, 1955. The Science Museum, ‘Secret Life of the Home’ collection. Accessed May 2014.
15. Ben Campkin and Rosie Cox, Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination (London, I.B. Tauris: 2007), pp.5-6.
16. Ruth Cadbury MP, General Committees Commons debate, 15th June 2016.

Photo at top, iStock / Matthieu_Photoglovsky, and on homepage by iStock / andipantz.

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