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How Does Dry Cleaning Work?

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The term “dry cleaner” first appeared on a list of occupations inscribed on a Mycenaean clay tablet dating from 1600-1100 BCE. Van Sigworth of the National Institute of Drycleaning posits that this likely referred to the use of grease-absorbing dirt and sand to remove stubborn stains. This was truly “dry” cleaning—a claim that can't be made about our contemporary versions.

The specifics of the story vary, but the first modern dry cleaner is often said to be a Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Jolly or Jolly Belin (depending on whom you ask). In the early 19th century, Jolly accidentally spilled kerosene (or was it turpentine?) from a lamp onto a greasy tablecloth. When the spot dried, he noticed it was remarkably clean. After a little experimenting, the enterprising Jolly found that the petroleum-based fluid worked to wash all sorts of delicate fibers.

The first commercial dry cleaners opened in Paris in 1825 (or ’45) under the name "Jolly Belin." For the next one hundred years or so, dry cleaning companies relied on kerosene, or the equally combustible benzene and gasoline, to banish stains. The fire threat these solvents posed made it difficult for dry cleaners to obtain insurance—not to mention risky for them to operate. In the 1930s, people began experimenting with different solvents less likely to set their businesses aflame, and in 1948 the industry settled on a non-flammable halogen compound called perchloroethylene, or "perc," for short.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

For the most part, perc is what dry cleaners still use today. After clothes are loaded into what resembles a normal washing machine, the rotating drum fills with the chemical. The machine is then agitated to scrub stains away; post-cycle, the perc drains out of the drum to be stored for another load. (Dirt is filtered out of the solvent before it drains or it is distilled later so the liquid can be used again.) At some point in the process, specific water-soluble stains are treated. Finally, clothes are pressed and returned in one of those annoyingly clingy plastic bags.

For a quick overview of this process, check out the video below:

The Problem with Perc

Perc reigned supreme as the dry cleaning chemical of choice until the mid-1990s, when a series of scientific studies delivered a hit to its reputation. (One scary Seattle-based study found that rates of esophageal and bladder cancers among dry cleaning workers increased by a factor of about two.) Today, the EPA concedes that Tetrachloroethylene (another name for perc) is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” and “may also cause adverse effects in the kidney, liver, immune system and hematologic system, and on development and reproduction.”

Today, those searching for perc-free alternatives generally have one of three options, thanks to so-called “Organic” or “Green” cleaners. Option one is siloxane, a silicone-based chemical solvent that is biodegradable and is not believed to be a health risk. Good old-fashioned (and cheap!) hydrocarbon can be used, too, and though it’s generally thought to be safer than perc, it can leave a chemical odor on clothes. The newest (and priciest) innovation in dry cleaning uses CO2 as a solvent—although most neighborhood shops can’t yet afford the machines that convert carbon dioxide from its gas form to a liquid.

The simplest non-perc solution for businesses looking to attract conscious consumers is “wet cleaning,” in which—you guessed it—regular old water is heated to a desired temperature then used to scrub out stains.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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