Pressing Business

Posted March 6th, 2009 at 8:12 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

One of my favorite movie quotes, from the 1954 classic “On the Waterfront,” is the lament by Terry Malloy, a washed-up prizefighter turned longshoreman: “I coulda been a contender.” Or as he pronounced it, a “contenduh.”

Well, “I coulda been a librarian”!

Librarians’ work is full of excitement and danger!

And maybe I should have been, given my love of deep research to ferret out answers to nagging mysteries. But a librarian’s life would have chained me to a desk, turned my complexion sallow, filled my lungs with book dust and mold spores, worsened my eyestrain, and consigned me to a life of tedium one minute and stress the next, dealing with impatient patrons. Plus, I’d have forever been labeled a nebbish rather than the robust, swashbuckling adventurer that I am. Ha!

It so happens that there is great satisfaction – almost secret delight – to be found in one facet of a librarian’s job. Not the monotonous reshelving of books, for sure, but in reference desk search-and-discover investigations.

In the days before Internet search engines, I made liberal use of a “telephone reference service” offered by the State of Maryland. Even late at night, if I needed to know, say, why Oklahoma has a skinny little panhandle sticking out to the west, smooshed by four other states, someone at the reference desk would take the question, put me on hold, walk back into the stacks, miraculously find the answer, and come back and give it to me.

That person could pluck information that no amount of digging through my own reference books could unearth. Reference detectives were superheroes to students and writers, but the advent of Internet search engines cost a lot of them their jobs.

Oklahoma Panhandle
I told you that the Oklahoma Panhandle was remote and rugged! This was taken in Beaver County, one of three in that scrunched prairie corridor

Quick and comprehensive though online searches are, they can’t always replace a keen human eye and knack of knowing exactly where right answers hide. I just googled “Oklahoma Panhandle,” for instance, and got 382,000 results! Impressive, but if the answer to why it’s stuck out in Nowhere Land lies in entry No. 265,456, I’m out of luck.

Let me give you three thrilling examples of recent offbeat searches. OK, interesting examples:

Tough One in the Tar Heel State

• Dave Chadwick, a colleague in the VOA newsroom, and I got to talking about North Carolina. It’s his home state and a place that Carol and I visit once a year for sure, for her family reunion. Dave mentioned that his grandfather, John, owned the local pressing club in little La Grange, in the steamy lowlands.

“The what?” I asked. “What’s a pressing club?”

“A dry-cleaning shop,” he explained.

I had figured that much from the “pressing” part of the term. But a pressing club?

“The name was Chadwick Cleaners,” Dave told me, “but a lot of folks called it “the pressing club.” His grandpa never explained this, nor did Dave ever ask.

Intrigued, I poked around online and came up with a surprising array of pressing-club references – all in southern cities. It was soon apparent that pressing clubs were, and still are, creatures of the South. Given the stifling heat, drenching humidity, and cultural insistence upon keeping up appearances there in years gone by, neatly pressed clothes, right down to the knife’s-edge crease in one’s slacks, were serious business.

Pressing clubs
Pressing clubs, and the dry cleaners that replaced them, were hot, hot places in the un-airconditioned South. Full of headache-inducing fumes, too

I phoned a couple of the extant establishments that still carry “pressing club” names. Everyone told the same story as Dave’s, that pressing clubs had “been around forever,” but that they hadn’t a clue where the “club” part originated.

That’s OK. A thickened plot enlivens a librarian’s day.

Certainly dry cleaners aren’t clubs any more. You can walk in off the street and plop down a pile of sweaty shirts and wrinkled slacks when you feel like it, at any shop of your choosing.

This is one image we have of southern culture

I turned to the bible of all things colloquially southern: The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. It’s a thick, remarkable volume developed at the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

But this is southern culture, too. Pressing clubs tended to serve the type of folks who lived in houses like the one in the previous photo

That’s in Oxford, Mississippi, home of legendary novelist William Faulkner, who once remarked that in the American South, the past is never dead. It’s not even past. Defeated and largely impoverished by the nation’s Civil War a century-and-a-half ago, the South developed a distinctive culture that is studied and celebrated around the world to this day.

Pressing clubs were part of that culture, it would seem. But the term is nowhere to be found in that regional compendium.

One Internet site displays a photographic copy of a 1906-07 business directory from Waynesville, a tiny town in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. It listed the following:

Nobby Pressing Club WORK DONE NEATLY AND WITH DISPATCH $1.OO Ter [Per?] Month Main Street WAYNESVILLE Phone 129. [You can tell that this directory was printed long ago, when telephone numbers had just three digits.]

And this:


And this:

STAR PRESSING CLUB A. H. WILSON a.nd S. A. COPNEY “Proprielorj [the directory could have used a proofreader] MEMBERSHIP $1.00 PER MONTH ^ ^ ^ CLOTHES SENT FOR AND DELIVERED TO ANY PART OF THE CITY Telephone 113 GIVE US A TRIAL.

At last, a clue! Two mentions of a monthly membership fee. That is something that a club might charge.

Dictionary of American Regional English
The Dictionary of American Regional English finds words and phrases that might seem odd in one region but part of everyday speech in another. Maybe “pressing club” will make the next edition

A fuller, if not definitive, answer arrived through the good graces and expert searching of DARE, the Dictionary of American Regional English, which is compiled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. That, my friends, is a long way from anything “southern.”

DARE “seeks to document the varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States – those words, pronunciations, and phrases that vary from one region to another, that we learn at home rather than at school, or that are part of our oral rather than our written culture.” Its editors point out that although “American English is remarkably homogeneous considering the tremendous size of the country, there are still many thousands of differences that characterize the various dialect regions of the United States. It is these differences that DARE records.”

But even it managed to miss “pressing clubs”!

By now my curiosity had reached a respectable frenzy. I simply had to know – could not rest until I did – the genesis of “pressing club.” No reference search shall go unrequited, after all.

DARE’s chief editor, Joan Houston Hall, joined the quest. In an old, old edition of the legal journal Southern Reporter, she found a reference to a case involving a lumber company that had felt it prudent to establish “a clean, sanitary barber shop and pressing club for the accommodation of the management and employees.” Such a deal! You could get your hair cut and your slacks pressed, all at once. Not the pants you were wearing, most likely.

Another Southern Reporter notation described a dispute in which a man was accused of operating an unlicensed pressing club in a room of the house where he stayed.

Sherlock Holmes
Sometimes librarians are master detectives. Word sleuths

Like a bloodhound baying beneath a treed raccoon (but more discreetly), I could smell an end to this endeavor. The most comprehensive solution, also uncovered by research wizard Hall, appears in a 1900 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. I am going to quote the pertinent section of Isabel Gordon Curtis’s article, entitled “New Sources of Income,” in full because it gives, in addition to a pretty fair answer to our puzzle, insights into life and attitudes in turn-of-the-century America. Turn of the 19th Century into the 20th.

In everyday life everywhere one hears of women who have built up for themselves a business which means a comfortable living earned under the home roof. One instance which occurs to me is that of a young woman whose story was the familiar one of being suddenly thrown on her own resources. She had no talent of any sort; she could not sew or cook and the future looked ominous. She thought of her only capability, that of keeping her clothes in good order. She could make a grease spot vanish as if by magic, and she could use a hot iron on a cloth suit as ably as any tailor.”

Curtis’s story from 109 years ago continued:

Pressing clubs
It’s not surprising that pressing clubs caught on as a valuable community service

“The pressing club” was an organization which grew out of this idea. The club members were the owners of natty tailored suits, girls who would rather pay money than care for their clothes. The fee for keeping a handsome suit in excellent condition, sponged, pressed and with unbroken stitches, was ten dollars a year [roughly equivalent to the $1-a-month membership fee mentioned in the Waynesville pressing club listings above]. That insured a visit to a presser twice a month and a well-groomed appearance. The work was all done under the home roof, and now the young woman who organized the “pressing club” employs a strong-armed assistant, for club members are many.”

Eureka! At a time when grooming and fashion counted for a lot, when most domestic chores such as keeping one’s skirts and suits sharply creased were handled at home, those who could afford it chipped in to join “clubs” that had no clubhouse, no sporting activities, no board games, no meetings. They offered simple “pressing” services. As their membership swelled throughout the South, “club” operations moved from homes into modest stores. John Chadwick’s pressing club in La Grange operated out of a little brick building on Main Street. Over time as technology advanced, simple cleaning and pressing turned to dry cleaning.

But some shops retain names like “Pressing Club Dry Cleaners” in Charleston, South Carolina, and “Ideal Cleaners – The Pressing Club,” in Kinston, North Carolina.

That’s a lot of information about a trivial matter, but what can I say? I coulda been a librarian!

Ruffles and Flourishes

•The second bug was planted by my officemate, Penelope Poulou, who, like most of us, knows the expression “pomp and circumstance.” It is the title of a brisk song that’s played, sometimes ad nauseam, at high school and college commencement ceremonies as graduates shuffle onto the stage to collect their diplomas.

This graduation ceremony in St. Charles, Missouri, was certainly full of colorful pomp. No doubt Elgar’s music was part of the circumstance as well

The tune is one of several “Pomp and Circumstance” military marches composed by the English baronet, Sir Edward Elgar. The one that drones on at graduation is his “March No. 1.”

But the song is not the focus of Penelope’s “bug.” It’s the odd juxtaposition of the two words: “pomp” and “circumstance.”

Just as we easily deduced the “pressing” but not the “club,” we understand that “pomp” refers to splendor, ostentation, or exaggerated solemnity, often in military and other spectacles, such as those graduations. “Pomp,” comes from the Greek word for “parade.” English speakers molded the word into the adjective “pompous,” which connotes even more conceit and strutting self-importance.

Clear enough. But what’s with the “circumstance”? We have William Shakespeare to thank or blame. As Michael Sheehan of Cedar, Michigan, points out in his “Wordmall” blog about the English language, Shakespeare wrote in Othello, Act III, Scene iii about “Pride, Pompe, and Circumstance of glorious Warre [war].”

“Circumstance,” from the Latin, refers to surroundings, a ceremony, or a show. So “pomp” and “circumstance” are a tad redundant. But I see elegance and puffery of the participants in the “pomp,” and the overall surroundings of the event as the “circumstance.”

That’s my take, anyway.

Putting Time to Good Use

•The third offbeat question came from Penelope as well. She’s a regular quizmistress.

“You’ve heard of banks,” she began. “Natch,” I replied, though the way the economy is trending, I wish I hadn’t.

“And you’ve heard of barter.” “Sure: you give me a cow, and I give you a harvest of hay.” Not that she has a cow or I any hay, but we need an example here!

“Ah,” Penelope continued. “But have you heard of “time banking?”

Couldn’t say that I had. Sounded appealing, though. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to “bank” some lazy hours on a Sunday afternoon and withdraw them on a hectic Thursday at the office?

That’s not the idea, more’s the pity. Instead, time banking is part of what some call a “social change movement.” It’s a form of volunteerism that gives you something back besides satisfaction:

Sobrante Park TimeBanking in Oakland, California, organized this health fair last April

You contribute, say, four hours of your time and energy to a worthwhile effort. It doesn’t have to be noble, like reading to the elderly at a nursing home. You could give clarinet lessons for free. Or clean the yard of a housebound neighbor. Or tune up the car of someone who wouldn’t know how.

For these hours of community service, you may “bank” the equivalent number of “time dollars.” You build your bank of dollars and then spend all or some of them on something you need or would like. Perhaps another time-bank member would come over and teach you Italian cooking. Or fix the falling plaster in your den. Or water your lawn while you’re on vacation.

This becomes what time bankers call a “circle of giving.” The concept is at work in 22 countries on six continents and is active in about 60 U.S. cities. One time bank in Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, has more than 1,000 members. In some cities, time bankers offer or request services via an online bulletin board. Elsewhere, coordination is left to volunteers. Backgrounds are checked to be sure the time bankers are trustworthy. After all, many of the services involve opening homes to strangers.

Edgar Cahn
Edgar Cahn’s idea of banking hours of community service has spread around the world

TimeBanks USA, the time-banking network in this country, operates out of the home of its founder, Edgar S. Cahn, here in Washington. A former professor at Antioch School of Law in Ohio, Cahn came up with the “time dollars” concept in 1980.

TimeBanks USA hopes to soon develop a universal time bank in which people could spend or collect time dollars anywhere in the country. If Carol and I took our three

Lynn Time Bank
Last spring, young people in Lynn, Massachusetts, met with representatives of the Lynn Time Bank to learn about community service

cats on a trip, for instance – yes, yes, it would be a dumb thing to do – we might want someone to cat-sit for awhile in the cities where we’re working. A time banker in Chicago, for instance, would do it for free. For her part, Carol would offer photography services to the universal time bank. I don’t know what I’d provide. Survival tips for writers on the road, maybe.

So now you know about pressing clubs, pomp and circumstance, and time banking. Next time, perhaps, I’ll tell you about another interesting concept: “meet-ups.”

Duty Calls

To close, one more quick story from our pressing club scion, Dave Chadwick:

This is not Dave Chadwick delivering laundry. It was taken a bit before Dave’s time, in 1916, in Bowling Green, Kentucky

Back in the day, Chadwick Cleaners picked up and delivered laundry all over La Grange every day but Sunday. “Blue laws,” which forbid commerce on the Sabbath, were in effect in North Carolina, so Chadwick’s was closed on Sundays. Dave was the kid who hopped out of the car to accept the laundry bundles.

Nevertheless, people would call Dave’s grandfather at home, moaning that they had neglected to pick up their “Sunday best” suits for church. So John Chadwick would troop downtown, retrieve the suits, and deliver them.

Finally, with a nod from the La Grange police, he came up with a wilier solution. Early each Sunday morning, he’d drive to the cleaner’s, where he’d wait for customers who were in dire need of their Sunday outfits to knock on the door.

Meantime, he’d make a pot of coffee, read the Sunday paper, and discover – oh so regrettably, week after week – that he just couldn’t break away to join the family for church.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Ad nauseam. To a sickening degree. There’s a direct relationship between something that goes on and on, ad nauseam, and nausea.

Eureka! Taken from a Greek word meaning “I have found it!,” supposedly exclaimed by the physicist Archimedes when he discovered a way to compute the density of solid objects. He measured how much water they displaced in his bathtub!

Extant. Existing now. Lizards are extant. Dinosaurs are not, so far as I know.

Juxtaposition. The alignment of two things, often words, side by side.

Lament. As a noun, it means a pitiful cry, often uttered after terrible news is received. The verb means to mourn or greatly regret. One often laments having made a really bad decision.

Natch. Glib shorthand for “naturally.”

Nebbish. From Yiddish, this word describes an extremely meek, timid, and unremarkable person.

Scion. A descendant, often applied to male heirs. The word comes from nature, where a scion is a shoot off a twig.

Smooshed. A made-up word not in most dictionaries. It’s a descriptive variation of “smashed.”

Tar Heel State. North Carolina’s nickname. Barefoot backwoodsmen there once made a lot of turpentine, which left behind oozy, black pitch that stuck to their heels (and soles and toes).

Unrequited. Unsatisfied. The word is most often applied to unfulfilled love.

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One response to “Pressing Business”

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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