The story of laundry over three centuries of Cape Town life

Photo courtesy of Nannucci Holdings archive

Laundry – whether you do it yourself or someone helps you – is as much a part of our daily existence today as it was three hundred years ago. What was and is some of the culture surrounding the cleaning and pressing of clothes in Cape Town?

18th Century: Fragments of the lives of slave washerwomen

Not much remains of the stories of slave washerwomen: Their names and histories, family stories and life journeys are, for the most part, unknown. What can be discovered is found in fragments: buttons from a soldier’s jacket, shards of a glass bottle, small musical instruments, brass curtain rings and pieces of a child’s porcelain tea set. What do these things say? Found in archaeological excavations on the slopes of Table Mountain near the Platteklip river, and according to Elizabeth Gryzmala Jordan, in the paper “It all comes out in the wash: engendering archaeological interpretations of slavery” in Women and Slavery: Africa, the Indian Ocean World, and the Medieval North Atlantic, Volume 1, these pieces of history speak of a small hardworking community of women who used the river as a place to wash the clothes of some of Cape Town’s earliest inhabitants. From the buttons found at the site we can tell that the washerwomen washed the clothes of almost every sector of society, from soldiers to magistrates, ladies to labourers; from the brass curtain rings we can deduce that the labour would have been back breaking (imagine hand washing and drying curtains on a daily basis) and from the coins, pocket knives and rings we can be fairly sure that then, like now, some things got lost in the wash.

Other items tell different stories. The numerous shards of ceramic containers and bottle glass imply that people often ate and drank at the site; the recovery of gaming pieces, Jew’s harps and pieces of harmonica probably mean that music-making and gambling took place at the site as well, from which we can infer that perhaps it was not all work and no play for the slave washerwomen. Lastly, the evidence of children’s toys, in the form of marbles, porcelain “penny dolls” and tea sets, means that being a washerwoman was probably one of the few occupations in which a slave woman could look after her children while working.

Visit for information on visiting the Platteklip washhouse.

19th Century: Dancing, dry-cleaning and a game of golf 

In 1879, so the story goes, a man was on the run from the Italian mafia. His name was Nannucci and he ended up running all the way to Cape Town and opening the first Nannucci dry cleaners on Long Street. The business flourished and by the early part of the 20th century there were over 400 Nannucci locations operating across the Western Cape. Michael Robarts, current non-executive chair of Nannucci Holdings, tells how it was a common in those days to see long queues snaking their way out of Nannucci stores, particularly on Friday nights when men were lining up to get their suits pressed before dancing the night away in the city. There is even footage from the 1930s of eager customers waiting out the pressing of their suits by putting in the lane behind the laundry – pants-less, of course.

Today, Nannucci remains one of the largest laundry and dry cleaning companies in South Africa, although, according to Michael, “Whilst our history is indeed entrenched in dry-cleaning industry, due to changes in working trends, fabric and the general ‘dressing down’ of the working fraternity, we have moved to offer laundry and other related services as well.”

Today, there are more than 7 Nannucci outlets located throughout the city. Two of these are in the Central City:

  • 5 ABSA Centre | T: 021 425 4735
  • 103 Plein Street | T: 021 465 5127

See other dry cleaners in the Central city:

21st Century: A destination laundry

I Love My Laundry does a lot of different things: swing past there on any given day (or night, they are open from 07h00 to 19h00, every day of the week) and you have the option of enjoying a coffee, tucking into freshly steamed Korean dim sum, surveying the latest art for sale on the walls or buying one or more of the famous ‘bums and boobs’ biscuits, which according to co-owner Clayton Howard, are made by a trio of older women who use the profits to enjoy a dinner out on the town.

The concept was inspired by Clayton’s travels abroad, when he was first introduced to destination laundries. When he returned to Cape Town he gave the idea a different spin and opened up I Love My Laundry with his business partner Mico Botha, offering a full service laundry while creating a space for clients to relax while they wait for the laundry to be completed. “Our customers are artistic, alternative and fabulous,” says Clayton.

“As such we offer them a chic service that is very customisable with a turnaround time of three hours. Although we charge the same as other laundries in town, we offer a very personal service and we really pay attention to detail, from washing your clothes exactly as you like them to be, to offering steaming, air drying, pressing, dry cleaning, dyeing, to packing your clothes according to the individual layout of your wardrobe or your preferred method of folding socks.”

I Love My Laundry | 159 Buitengracht Street | T: 084 660 077 (Clayton) and 083 602 0291 (Mico)

City Views February 2013 cover

This article first appeared in the February 2013 issue of City Views. Text by Ambre Nicolson, photo supplied by Nannucci Holdings. Read it online.

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