In June 1998, while renovating his home in St. Louis, Joseph Heathcott found a collection of trash moldering in the slender cavity between his pantry and his laundry chute. It was a stack of small paper scraps “lying in repose at various scales,” with sooty edges that were just beginning to stick together and combine. There was a box of playing cards, a train ticket from Kansas City, a receipt, a diary entry, a delivery card, sections of handwritten notes, a laundry ticket, and labels from Christmas packaging. The scraps had gathered over a century, escaping from pockets as garments fell from the second floor, and some of the scraps slipped through a seam his chute.
In “Reading the Accidental Archive,” Heathcott, an associate professor of urban studies at the New School, in New York, says he was able to interpret “tensions between the upward aspirations and limited means” of the Aufderhide’s, the German family who had first settled into his house during the early formation of the American middle class, using only the artifacts curated by a slit in his ductwork.
A laundry chute is a mythic domestic space. It’s an unwatched door to nowhere, the open throat of an old home. Its reputation has as much to do with convenience as with the early recognition that a house is not solid through and through. The laundry chute is a place where stains and embarrassing odors go to be erased, and dropping linen down the chute is a mnemonic for forgetting those embarrassments, for making such accidents invisible. Most of a laundry chute is sealed behind walls, and this covert quality draws people to encounter such items that laundry chutes are built explicitly to contain.