The History and Evolution of Dry Cleaning

It’s safe to assume that as long as people have been wearing clothes, they have also been washing them. Dry cleaning has been around for centuries and has continued to be a reliable way to get clothes cleaned since. It is one of those life-changing inventions that often gets taken for granted. So what is the history of dry cleaning and how has it evolved over time? Keep reading to find out. 

Early History of Dry Cleaning

In the mid-1800s, Jean Baptiste Jolly accidentally found a new cleaning method after spilling kerosene on a soiled tablecloth. He was shocked to find that the stains had been removed once the kerosene fully dried. This inspired Jolly to coin the term “dry cleaning” and open a business in France. 

By the 1900s, the government intervened and began to regulate dry cleaners due to the mass amount of fires and explosions caused by flammable solvents. After World War 1, dry cleaners began using chlorinated solvents, which were much less flammable and more effective than what was previously used.

Around the 30s and 40s, perchloroethylene became the most popular solvent due to the fact that it was non-flammable and it was an excellent cleaner. This allowed dry cleaning businesses to move back into the residential and commercial areas of cities. 

In 1991, California declared perchloroethylene as a toxic chemical and a probable carcinogen. By 2011, more than 85% of dry cleaners in the United States were using perc as their main cleaning solvent. 

In 2023, the use of perc will become illegal in the state of California.  

The Evolution of Dry Cleaning Fluids

Over the years, the fluids that are used in the dry cleaning process have changed. In the early days of dry cleaning, cleaners would use petroleum-based solvents, including kerosene, gasoline, camphene, and benzene. Because these were all highly flammable liquids, it caused many fires and explosions. Many people became concerned about their high flammability, which eventually led to the development of safer solvents. 

After World War I, dry cleaners began to use various chlorinated solvents, which were less flammable and more effective in cleaning. Some of the most popular dry cleaning solvents include perchloroethylene, hydrocarbons, trichloroethylene, and supercritical CO2. 

Perchloroethylene (PCE) is a nonflammable solvent. It is colorless, sweet-smelling, and has low toxicity. It has been used as the main solvent in dry cleaning since the 1930s. PCE is perfect for treating oil-based stains rather than water-soluble ones, usually from wine, coffee, and blood. 

Hydrocarbons are similar to PCE, but they tend to be less effective and require longer cleaning cycles. Although these solvents are flammable, you don’t need to worry about fires or explosions if you are using them properly. 

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a super effective dry cleaning solvent. It is ideal for cleaning industrial workwear due to its powerful degreasing properties. However, TCE has since been classified as carcinogenic to humans by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Supercritical CO2 is another popular alternative to PCE. If you want to get the most effectiveness out of this solvent, it is recommended that you use this solvent with additive surfactants. 

The Dry Cleaning Industry Today

Currently, the dry cleaning industry in the United States has a market size of roughly $8 billion. Over the years, the demand for dry cleaning services has recorded strong growth from residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. With more than 31,000 dry cleaning businesses across the country, dry cleaners continue to offer individuals with excellent laundry care. 


Now that you have learned more about the history of dry cleaning and how it has evolved over the years, make sure to look for a reputable dry cleaner to get the best out of modern-day dry cleaning. Hanger’s Cleaners are the go-to professionals for all of your dry cleaning needs. From dry cleaning services to wet services, alterations, pressing clothes, and many more, Hangers Cleaners has got you covered! We know that life can get busy – that’s why we offer free dry cleaning delivery and pickup for all of our customers! Call us at 501-227-8500 to schedule services for all of your laundry needs today.