Kalispell-American Laundry

In the last 95 years, this fine brick commercial building has always housed a laundry or dry cleaning operation

By Jaix Chaix

The Kalispell-American Laundry building adds credence to the adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The building – with its mostly unchanged exterior – has been a “bystander” of sorts, as social and economic changes have whirled around it since it was built in 1919.

However, the more things change …

The Kalispell Steam Laundry was founded in 1898 by Phillip Jacoby and William Bowen. The American Laundry was established by the French brothers: Frederick E. French and William H. French. The “Kalispell-American Laundry” came about as the two laundries were consolidated in 1918 (much like corporations that consolidate for greater profits today).

In May, 1919, Robert Pauline, an owner of the company, hired Kalispell-architect Marion B. Riffo to design a new, modern building for the laundry operation at 121 First Ave. E. (and appealed to a more refined, middle-class clientèle, unlike the early Chinese laundries on the west side).

Life in the early 1900s, was the epitome of “a man’s world” (at the least, since women could not vote). It was a time when men built empires and amassed great wealth. Yet for the “common Joe,” who typically worked 60 hours a week, there was a pervasive hope that wealth and attainment were somehow “just around corner.”

So whether plying his trade at a workbench, or applying his mind at a clerk’s desk, the “modern man” of the early 1900s had to at least appear prepared for his “arrival” – and indeed, the measure of a man accounted for the starching of his collar and the adornment of his cuffs.

Yet businesses would soon ever more solicit business from women. For example, a 1930s ad for the Kalispell-American Laundry implored women to “Pick up the phone and put down the scrub-board, the laundry way saves your time, your strength, and your clothes!”

Also, like other early businesses in the Flathead Valley, the laundry business was not immune to strife among owners and the workers and labor unions.

For example, in 1903 both the Kalispell Steam and American Laundry operations faced the demands of labor and unions. The unions demanded a raise in pay for a twelve-hour day from $8.50 to $10. Incidentally, the strike stirred emotions and found then-owner Frederick French punching and knocking down Frank Nichols, the manager of the worker’s union. Later that day, Robert Pauline (who later became a mayor Kalispell mayor and a state senator) got into a bare-knuckled fistfight with a union committee member.

Almost 50 years later, members of the Local 345 A.F. of L picketed outside the building in December 1950. B.H. Paddock, owner of the Kalispell Laundry, declared that if the strike was not called off, new workers would be hired to replace the old ones – who were striving for a 40-hour workweek. Ironically, the union workers demanded an increase for apprentice wages from 60 cents to 73 cents per hour – about the same amount paid 50 years before in 1900.

In the last 95 years, this fine brick commercial building has always housed a laundry or dry cleaning operation. Even today, the building is home to High Country Linen – and you can still have your dry-cleaning done. Thus, the “1919 Laundry” brick inlay atop the front entrance still makes sense.

Today, hundreds of timberjacks seeking to bathe themselves and their clothes after weeks in the woods at a steam laundry no longer visit the laundry. The once dandy men-about-town, and darting modern housewives of the ‘30s are no longer around. Nonetheless, much like the original tin ceiling, the building remains very much the same.

Jaix Chaix appreciates history and architecture. Share ideas and facts with him at landmarks@flatheadbeacon.com or at facebook.com/flatheadvalleylandmarks.

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