1890: The Rapid Rise of Chinese Laundries

This cartoon, by E.W. Kemble, appeared in Century Magazine in 1890 (vol. 40, no. 1, p. 480). It is interesting as a double ethnic joke or insult: Chinese writing is presented as being amusingly incomprehensible and the Irish couple, with stage Irish accents and comical appearances, is shown as being laughably ignorant of both Chinese characters and Western musical notation. Mary asks “And what do the notes be, Andy?” Andy replies “I can’t tell thim off, but if I had me flute I c’u’d play thim.”

Century Magazine

Although published in New York, the magazine had a national readership. In 1890, the editors clearly expected that most of its readers would be familiar with Chinese laundries, showing that Chinese-Americans had already occupied that economic niche in much of the country.
In Chicago, the first Chinese laundry did not appear until 1872, but by 1890 there were 263 such laundries, in competition with a roughly equal number of laundry establishments run by English- and German-Americans. Irish-Americans, at least in Chicago, rarely entered the laundry business.