Kris, It’s funny you should ask because the person who coined the word was my father, Harry Greenwald. When I was a wee lad living in an apartment house in Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1940s, my father, who was a prolific inventor, got an idea. The majority of the people in our building used the old washboard method of doing their laundry, but a few owned washing machines and were the envy of everyone. My father got the idea to put a coin meter (25 cent) on a washing machine and got permission from the building owner to set up one machine in the basement. In very short order people were standing in line to use the machine. He then got permission to set up several machines and they were almost in constant use. He realized he had hit on something that had real possibilities and the concept of setting up coin-operated washing machines in stores was born.
He got the idea for the name LAUNDROMAT
from the Horn & Hardart Automat in Times Square in Manhattan where he used to eat lunch. Horn & Hardart was a restaurant in which the walls were covered with glass-doored boxes which would unlock when a coin was dropped in a slot. He had thought of several possibilities for store names but settled on Laundromat which combined ‘laundry’ with ‘automat.’ My father had little interest in actually opening stores, but decided what he wanted to do was manufacture the meters. He went to Westinghouse Electric, a manufacturer of washing machines, with his concept and set up a relationship in which he would manufacture the meters and they would use his meters exclusively and hook them up to their machines in their factory.
It should be noted that originally there were washing machine stores without meters in which you paid an attendant and the early Laundromats sometimes just had a few metered machines with the rest being handled by an attendant. The washing machine stores eventually became the LAUNDROMAT
franchise, but Westinghouse didn’t actually trademark the word until 1947, and the first full-fledged 24-hour, self-service store, as we know them today, didn’t appear until 1949 in Austin Texas – and the rest, as they say, is history. My father went on to form Greenwald Company, which became Greenwald Industries in 1954, the largest manufacturer of coin meters for washers, dryers, and vending machines in the world, and the business is still running strong today. I have the millionth meter, which was manufactured back in the 1960s, sitting on my shelf.
The first public appearance in print of the word Laundromat that the OED cites is 1943, although, I have some examples of it in documents dating from a bit earlier.
<1943 “LAUNDROMAT. Domestic electric washing (laundering) machines. Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company..Pennsylvania.”—‘Trade Marks Journal’>
<1951 “The Westinghouse Company has a ‘Laundramat’, and there are also ‘Laundromats’—often called ‘Laundermats’ and ‘Laundrymats’—open for public patronage.”—‘American Speech,’ XXVI. page 166>
<1955 “The village mind was still churning up the past, tossing the old dirty linen back and forth impersonally, like one of the washing machines in the new LAUNDROMAT [[l.c.]]”—‘Charmed Life’ (1956) by M. McCarthy, i. page 20>
<1956 “Junior colleges, jet-plane factories, LAUNDROMATS, six-lane highways.”—‘Adonis and the Alphabet,’ by Aldous Huxley, page 148>
<1957 “I . . . found nothing but LAUNDROMATS [[l.c.]], cleaners, soda fountains.”—‘On the Road’ (1958) by Jack Kerouac, III. ii. page 187>
(Oxford English Dictionary
Ken G – December 7, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)