Chinese Americans in Early Twentieth-Century Baltimore


Figure 1.  The two center safety pins with stamped numbers marked net bags in commercial laundries and were used to track individual orders.  The smaller open pins surrounding the safety pins were probably used to pin paper tags on finished clothing.  The object t the top center is a soapstone pencil, used to mark stains.

Figure 1. The two center safety pins with stamped numbers marked net bags in commercial laundries and were used to track individual orders. The smaller open pins surrounding the safety pins were probably used to pin paper tags on finished clothing. The object to the top center is a soapstone pencil, used to mark stains.

During the 1980 excavation of the Federal Reserve site (18BC27), archaeologists uncovered the remains of a stoneware drainpipe that was clogged during the 1920s with debris from a commercial laundry.  When the pipe was broken open by earthmoving equipment, it was found to have filled over time with artifacts set in a concreted matrix of iron corrosion. Among the artifacts recovered from the pipe were laundry bag net pins—the two odd looking safety pins with the stamped numbers seen in the photograph to the left.  Since these large brass safety pins were rustproof, they could be attached to the net bags that separated individual orders in the washing machines. The solid flat heads were stamped with number designations that could be used to track bagged laundry to specific individuals. These pins are still being manufactured today for use in commercial laundries. They were just a few of the large number of commercial laundry-related artifacts found in the pipe.

This part of Baltimore—the Old Otterbein neighborhood—was settled in the late eighteenth century and occupied as a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood until the early 20th century. Growth was slow during the early 19th century, but by mid-century, both residential and business development had increased dramatically (Basalik 1994:315). At the end of the century, homes for individuals who worked in the neighborhood were interspersed with saloons, general stores, stables, a sash weight factory and a pickle plant. By the early 20th century, there was a mix of industrial, commercial and residential development (Basalik 1994:321).

City business directories and Sanborn Insurance Maps from the 19th and 20th centuries are invaluable resources for tracking changes to the cityscape and for lot-specific research. The 1922 Polk’s Baltimore City Business Directory listed the Wysing Lung Chinese Laundry at 518 South Sharpe Street, adjacent to the section of clogged drainpipe discovered in the excavation. The 1922 business directory also revealed the laundry’s connection to Baltimore’s old Chinatown, located a few blocks to the north, near the current location of Lexington Market. Immigrants opened laundries, restaurants, import stores, gambling parlors and joss houses in this neighborhood (Chin 1976).

Chinese immigrants started settling in Baltimore after the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad left many laborers unemployed and subject to discrimination on the Pacific Coast. At one time the nation’s second largest point of entry, Baltimore had a reputation for being more welcoming to immigrants than cities on the west coast (Baltimore Chinatown Project). Thus, in the late 19th century the city became the destination for thousands of Chinese seeking employment in construction and other skilled jobs.  They found few employment opportunities outside of family-owned businesses, so they primarily worked in Chinese-run laundries and restaurants. An analysis of city business directories revealed an increase in Chinese-owned laundries between the late 19th and early 20th centuries (from 99 in 1880 to 246 in 1900), followed thereafter by a steady decline through the 1940s and into the 1960s (Jahromi 2000). Over two-thirds of the 200 laundries listed in the 1922 Polk’s Baltimore business directory (when the drainpipe was in use by the Wysing Lung Laundry) were run by Asian immigrants (Polk’s 1922).

Figure 2.  An early 20th-century family-run Chinese laundry in California.  Note the small child in the foreground. Photo Credit: Encyclopedia of Immigration

Figure 2. An early 20th-century family-run Chinese laundry in California. Note the small child in the foreground. Photo Credit: Encyclopedia of Immigration.

No one can be sure of the date of the first Chinese laundry in America; however, most scholars agree that it appeared on the West Coast—probably in California—where the first Chinese immigrants arrived in 1848. As the numbers of Chinese immigrants increased there, they found work in the homes of the rich and in the mines because these jobs provided the ability to earn money while requiring limited language abilities (Siu 1987). While the date of the first laundry cannot be established, the conditions that led to the creation and expansion of the laundry market can be explained. Growth in the laundry business occurred around the time of the California gold rush, when the area was primarily populated by men who needed “house hold chores” done (Siu 1987). With few women to perform these chores and with the experience of the Chinese, the laundry business became the new immigrants’ main source of income.

Commercial laundries continued to be important businesses well into the 20th century, since home ownership of washing machines and dryers was not common until the mid-century. Chinese laundries were typically run by between one to five men, who were often related by birth or marriage (Siu 1987). Most business partnerships were between “cousins” or men who had the same surname.  Due to small incomes, Chinese laundry proprietors often lived modestly in their own stores, in order to save money to send to family members in China. The launderer normally lived behind the shelves that divided the front of the store where the customers were served from the back of the store where the laundry was washed (Siu 1987).

As immigrants to America, the Chinese faced many difficulties and were generally members of the lower classes of American society. Similar to today’s issues with immigrants, many Americans feared the Chinese would take jobs away from existing citizens, increasing the amount of social prejudice against them. These prejudices, coupled with the Chinese’s failure to assimilate to American culture or even to improve their language abilities, created stereotypes that led to a greater divide between the American people and the Chinese.  In 1882 the United States government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which stated that the Chinese could not become citizens even after many years of residence. This act, coupled with the Immigration Act of 1924, limited the number of immigrants that could enter the country, severely reducing Chinese abilities to make fulfilling and prosperous lives for themselves in the United States (The Immigration Act of 1924).

After World War I, Baltimore’s Chinatown moved two blocks north of its original location where it remains today along Park Avenue. The Chinese population in Baltimore has always remained quite small; at the beginning of World War II, the city’s Chinese population was only 400 and, as of the year 2000, the number was just over 2,400 (Wikipedia 2015).

Essay written by Patricia Samford and Christiana Nisbet

References

Baltimore Chinatown Project.  2013   Baltimore Chinatown Project. <http://www.law.umaryland.edu/faculty/tbanks/chinatown/index.htm&gt;. Accessed September 30, 2013.

Basalik, Kenneth.  1994  Urban Development in the Eastern United States:  An Archaeological View from Baltimore, Maryland.   PhD dissertation, Temple University.  University Microfilms, Ann Arbor.

Chin, Leslie.  1976  History of Chinese Americans in Baltimore. Greater Baltimore Chinese-American Bicentennial Committee.

Immigration Act of 1924.  2013  The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act). Office of the Historian. U.S Department of State.  <http://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/ImmigrationAct&gt;. Accessed September 24, 2013.

Jahromi, Jennifer Fefel.   2000  The Chinese in Baltimore: The Locations of Chinese Restaurants & Laundries in Baltimore from 1877-1964.  <http://www.law.umaryland.edu/faculty/tbanks/chinatown/maps.htm accessed 10-2-2013>.   Accessed September 15, 2013.

Polk’s.  1922  Polk’s Baltimore City Directory: containing an alphabetical list of business firms and private citizens, a directory of the city officers, terms of court, churches … also a revised street and avenue guide … a buyer’s guide and a complete classified business directory which contains a full and complete list of all trades, professions and pursuits.  Published by R. L. Polk and Co., Baltimore.  <http://archive.org/stream/polksbaltimoreci1922rlpo#page/n5/mode/2up&gt;.  Accessed September 30, 2013.

Siu, Paul C. P.  1987  The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation.  Edited by John Kuo Wei Tchen. New York University Press, New York.

Wikipedia.   2015 Chinatown, Baltimore.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown,_Baltimore

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