The Hidden History of the Laundry Chute
Stains, smells, secrets, thieves, dead bodies, and even a radioactive towel have all found their way down one. An Object Lesson.
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.
* * *
Because a chute is much more like a place than a mechanism, it lacks certain qualities necessary for measure and attribution. No record exists describing the very first laundry chute. Some say that the earliest “linen chutes” were fabric sleeves threaded through the spaces that naturally gaped between rooms. A master stair-maker I know tells me that no one even vaguely knows who, when, or where staircases first came from. “Too integral,” he says. My stair-maker also says that bulges were originally added to domestic walls to allow early laundry chutes to pass if the space between proved too meager for linens fall in large numbers.
The early linen chute was a kind of integral space modeled after those waste, mail, and ash chutes that were fashioned in parallel with chutes of industrial size. An 1891 article in The New York Times describes the recent appearance of “A Chute to the Laundry” built into tenement houses by an ingenious architect. The author adds, perhaps facetiously, that “occupants who have lived in blocks provided with similar postal conveniences will be cautioned against sending their correspondence to be washed.”
Mentions of laundry chutes begin to appear in similar advertisements just before the turn of the century, a period that the “scholar of rejected landscapes” Mira Engler has defined as an era of “Diverting Waste to the Public.” Engler says the 20th century is marked by control of waste due to major discoveries that linked waste to the spread of disease. In America, laundry chutes exemplified how environments tried to remove any sign of everyday human metabolics from the polite spaces of a home.
They hide more than just filth, too. Perhaps because laundry chutes, along with their predecessors that funneled coal, trash, and mail, inspire the sensation of tossing used items into a void, such places have also acted as keys to some of the more curious and sinister activities going on around them.
In 1894, James W. Taylor confessed to burning down his wife Sarah’s home using her laundry chute. “I entered the house shortly before 4 O’clock in the morning, took some waste from the barrel, saturated it with kerosene,” he said, “placed it in the wooden clothes chute in the laundry, and set fire to it.”
On September 1, 1915, eight sticks of dynamite were packed into a cigar box in Napa Junction, California. A week later they fell two stories down the mail chute at Grand Central Station, without exploding, on their way to a man in Italy. A mail clerk discovered the explosives after a stick came loose from its package, “which had been poorly done up originally.”
Mrs. Atwood, a Kansas City homeowner, was showered with soiled linen and $1,920 when she pulled open the laundry chute in her basement in the summer of 1945. The money had recently disappeared from a strong box belonging to one of her guests and the police believed the thief had dropped the cash down with his laundry after becoming wary during the search.
In 2006, the most radioactive object ever discovered by Scotland Yard was found at the base of a hotel laundry chute in London. Two Russian FSB officers had traveled to the U.K. to take out a dissident using a polonium solution.* They succeeded in poisoning the man but only on their third attempt. After they finished, the two men, who had little knowledge of the material, poured the most toxic substance known to man down their hotel drain and disposed of a polonium-soaked hand towel in the hotel’s laundry chute. The hand towel was sent immediately to the U.K.’s Atomic Weapons facility.
* * *
My childhood home in Rockford, Illinois, stood across the Rock River from the house where the prominent LaRosa family had installed a chute for linen—“one of the first of its kind”— in 1932. At the time, owning a laundry chute signaled social and financial status in the same way that owning enough linens to get the family through a month without washing had been in the 1800s. A century earlier, the American poor had been depicted in literature as dirty and rank not because they washed their clothing less often, but simply because they owned many fewer garments than the more visible, tidy, rich. The absence of soiled linens in common spaces took with them the common odors and stains attached to human processes. Later, this kind of partitioning would shift orientations in the design of neighborhoods and whole cities and inspire a new partitioning of neighborhoods based on class and race.
The Pfaudler company began as an outlet fashioning holding tanks for Budweiser beer. Pfaudler’s 1915 pamphlet describes how the company first turned brew tubes into laundry chutes after a doctor visited the brewery and, noting the problem of disposing infected linen, imagined how useful the sanitary tanks might be to his profession. After developing flushable chutes, Pfaudler went on to supply stainless steel tanks for the Manhattan Project. Later, the company would outfit tubes for the vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries we know today.
By 1915, American industry had followed the laundry chute’s lead, transferring waste processes out of public sight. In an article entitled “The City That Lies Beneath The City… Holes and Still More Holes,” an anonymous author celebrates the New York City Subway and “the real arteries of the town, made of all sorts of material, from cast iron to linen, thread, fine drawn steel.” He also applauds the namesake sewer underscoring modern Canal Street, an endeavor whose engineer once called it “the most beautiful cut stone job in the city.”
Florence Nightingale encouraged a similar division in designs for public hospitals. She instructed that hospital laundry should never be done near the clinic, where disease could be easily spread. “Nothing answers so well as foul-linen shoots,” Nightingale wrote of solutions for hospital laundry. “These should be built in the wall. The best material for them is glazed earthenware piping that can be flushed with water, 15 to 18 inches in diameter.”
* * *
If chutes end up preserving items that were never meant to be seen again, then that says something about the humans that have found themselves stuck inside them. As a human container, the chute symbolically flags people who have fallen through cracks in their surrounding structures. A chute suggests that these were the kind of people American society once equated with waste—sometimes because they were directly associated with it.
In 1895, a janitor discovered a human skull near the opening to the coal chute in a West 46th Street tenement house in New York. It was believed to belong to a young girl who had recently gone missing when she was sent out by her mother to gather coal, and whose body had been found near West 39th Street some days before. A decade later, five “street urchins” had hidden in a coal chute in an attempt to evade capture for stealing brass fittings from a Manhattan home.
In 1916, a patient escaped the Magdalen Asylum by sliding “at a scorching speed” down a laundry chute that was 90-feet long and 24-inches wide. The institution brought in women against their will for behaviors like drinking and prostitution. Poor conditions often drove patients to riot and throw themselves from windows into the quarry below the Asylum. Before 1916, not one patient had successfully escaped. After sliding down, Margaret Darcey fell 20 feet from the opening of the chute into the basement. She cut a screen, climbed a tree to scale the Asylum’s high wall, and got away. A century later, Shanghai’s 1,380-foot Jin Mao Tower boasts the world’s longest laundry chute, running 88 stories. No human could survive a fall down it, but one can guess the artifacts for which a chute of that length might have played host.
In 1950, following the death of Georgia Tann, it was revealed that rampant abuse had taken place at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society she headed. Among the grisly tales that surfaced was the common punishment of dangling children down the laundry chute with ropes tied to their wrists (a story recounted in Barbara Bizantz’s book The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller who Corrupted Adoption).
The chute continues its dark labor into the present day. A “Laundry Chute Peeper” was sentenced to serve time in prison in 2012 for spying regularly on a female neighbor through his apartment complex’s laundry chute. In the 2013 video game Hitman: Absolution, players are encouraged to store the corpses of their victims in specified “body containers,” including closets, manholes, outhouses, and laundry chutes. In 2016, a woman was found dead in her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The victim’s sister went to check on the 58-year-old and found her body in the laundry chute. Police said the death was suspicious, and looked into evidence supporting a homicide before finally ruling her death as accidental.
And yet, in cultural memory the laundry chute is simplified to a kind of playground slide, a place of innocence. In A Field Guide to Household Technology, under the entry for “Laundry Chute,” Edwin J. C. Sobey writes, “How It Works: More often the subject of great stories rather than misguided adventures, the laundry chute holds its own fascination. Being able to communicate and transport instantly between distant parts of the house is too cool to ignore.” Search for “laundry chute” today and you’ll find that large numbers of nostalgic Americans are interested in how to install new laundry chutes in modern homes where, perhaps, for reasons we’ve chosen to forget, the chute is still not yet a staple.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.
* An earlier version of this article misidentified the polonium solution used to poison Alexander Litvinenko as plutonium. We regret the error.