1820’s black tradesman added greatly to the history of the dry cleaning business

The art of dry cleaning dates back to ancient times, probably beginning with the advent of textile clothing itself. The ruins of Pompeii gives a record of a highly developed trade of “fullers” who were professional clothes cleaners. Lye and ammonia were used in early laundering, and a type of clay known as “fuller’s earth” was used to absorb soils and grease from clothing too delicate for laundering. There are many stories about the origin of dry cleaning, all centering on a surprise discovery when a petroleum-type fluid was accidentally spilled on a greasy fabric. It quickly evaporated and the stains were miraculously removed. The firm of Jolly-Belin, opening in Paris in the 1840s, is credited as the first dry cleaning firm.

However, it is now known that Thomas L. Jennings, a free black tradesman who lived in the early 1800s, is notable for being the first black person to receive a patent for a unique clothes cleaning method. The patent in 1821 was 20 years prior to the Jolly-Belin discovery. It was the forerunner of the dry cleaning process. Jennings was a tailor. His skills were so great that people came both near and far to custom-tailor items of clothing. Thomas discovered that customers were unhappy when their clothes were soiled and had a hard time cleaning them because of the fabrics they were made of. Jennings experimented with different solutions and cleaning agents until he found the right blend to effectively treat and clean them. He called this method dry-scouring, now known as dry cleaning.