The Saga of French Laundries in California

France was renowned for the quality of its laundries in the 19th century. This expertise was exported to America after James Marshall struck gold in California in 1848. The subsequent rush brought over huge numbers of prospectors and immigrants hoping for a more prosperous life, including some 25,000 French people. Those from the Basque Country and the region of Béarn were the first to open French laundries in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
A French laundry’s delivery wagon in Richmond, in the San Francisco Bay area, ca. 1900. © Ligue Henri IV

The first gold seams were found in California in 1848, and two years later some 10% of the Los Angeles population was made up of French people. Historians note that this number was almost double in San Francisco. But few succeeded in the Sierra Nevada, unable to find the promised gold supposed to send them home wealthy. This did not however stop them from settling in California, where they quickly prospered…

The French formed a close-knit, active community in San Francisco. They worked as skilled laborers, merchants, bankers, lawyers, and managers in hotels and restaurants. They founded the Société Française de Bienfaisance Mutuelle in 1851, and opened the first hospital a year later, which later became the renowned institution named L’Hôpital Français. The same year they founded L’Echo du Pacifique (1852-1865), a daily newspaper providing local information and published in French, English, and Spanish. They also built the church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires on Bush Street in the heart of San Francisco in 1856. And under the guidance of Parisian tenor André Ferrier, they even inaugurated a theater called La Gaieté Française.

Some 30% of these French settlers came from the region of Béarn, and they are still very present in San Francisco today. They emigrated in droves in the 19th century for economic reasons and a lust for gold, before turning to laundries in San Francisco. The town was home to more than 100 Béarnais laundries by 1915, and each one was managed by a small, autonomous community with its own socio-professional hierarchy. The Béarnais dialect was the official language in these immigrant communities, keen to keep the traditions of their native country alive.

The Rise of the Laundries

The gold rush that took hold of prospectors had repercussions in San Francisco. While still a developing town, many of its inhabitants became part of a new, nouveau riche social class. Following this trend, laundries were opened in 1851 to meet the demands of this new clientele. Originally owned by Irish immigrants, they were taken over by the French and transformed into luxury laundries specializing in cleaning lace, bleaching, washing, ironing, folding, and sewing. The French starched their linen, except for sheets, and they ironed using irons heated directly on a coal fire.

The first French launderers in California – a man from Alsace called Gassman and his Béarnais wife – opened their business in 1862, with a description specifying that their company was a “French hand laundry.” As the well-known anecdote goes, Jane Sanford, the wife of businessman Leland Stanford who founded the prestigious university, may have accidentally contributed to the success of Béarnais laundries in California. While preparing to receive President McKinley at their home, she wanted her tablecloth cleaned by a renowned laundry in New York. But one of her employees accidentally sent it to a local laundry owned by the Larrecou family from Béarn, who worked in Menlo Park near Palo Alto. Mrs. Stanford was so impressed by the meticulous treatment of her tablecloth that she sent all of her laundry to the Menlo Park laundry from then on!

Other laundries began to open in different towns in California, in Pasadena, Santa Ana, Richmond, Oakland, Turlock, and Petaluma, but most of all in San Francisco. The city’s first French laundry was founded in Pacific Heights by André Peninou in 1903, and is still open today. According to historians Olivier Lafaye and Marie Galanti, 85% of the Béarnais people in San Francisco worked as launderers until as late as 1930.

The Peninou laundry in San Francisco, ca. 1903. © Ligue Henri IV

A typical laundry employed between 10 and 20 people, and the most successful ones had up to 100 workers. But regardless of size, they were all organized according to a unique model. The workers’ tasks were carefully assigned. Employees earned a weekly wage of between 12 and 45 dollars according to their level of expertise, and worked as much as 12 or 15 hours per day.

They also slept in the laundries, which were all built following the same model. The steam boilers, equipment and the kitchen were on the ground floor, while the first floor was used for single-sex dormitories. The workers would spend time together on their days off, frequenting the bars, hotels, and restaurants owned by other members of their community, and their Saturday nights would be spent enjoying themselves at local dances. Another favorite pastime was to visit the quillier, where they would play with bowling pins, or quilles, imported from Béarn, in games dictated by traditional rules.

Just like the Basques, the Bretons, and the Normans, the Béarnais helped each other out, and significant emigration channels were put in place. An older brother or cousin already settled in the area would often welcome the new arrival. But when family members were unable to greet them, newcomers were sent to hotels owned by the Béarnais community, where they were welcomed, fed and given a place to stay. These hotels were also used as cultural centers and recruitment bases for workers in the laundries, which made up 90% of the job offers.

A Solid Béarnais Network

Several educated, ambitious French people soon understood the potential of such a network in San Francisco, and transformed the laundries into instruments of power. Buoyed by Bergerot and Dr. Bazet, these men created the Ligue Henry IV in 1895 in order to found their own Béarnais political party. This organization acted as a social, cultural association for its members and as a political tool for its leaders. Its main goal was to take control of the Hôpital Français, the city’s biggest French institution which excluded the Béarnais at the time. Growing increasingly powerful in San Francisco, the unions and government policies encouraged businesses to only use unionized labor at the start of the 20th century. The Béarnais felt threatened and founded an association of laundry owners and workers to protect their interests against the new unions.

When the World War I broke out in 1914, the young laundry workers were called back to France. While immigration picked up again after the war, it was on a much smaller scale. Another Béarnais association, the Club de l’Ouzoum, was created in 1928, but Béarnais immigration petered out after 1930. The French laundries survived for another 20 years, but competition from American laundromats and the arrival of the washing machine in the early 1950s wiped out the last remaining businesses.

The Béarnais in California have continued the traditions of helping each other out, as proved by the activities of the current Ligue Henri IV, including trips, belote card games, banquets, and picnics. The largest French association on the West Coast of the U.S.A is prosperous and well-respected. It has around one thousand members and is home to the offices of the local Alliance Française and other cultural associations.

The French Laundry

Located in Yountville, in Napa Valley, Thomas Keller’s famous, three-star French restaurant was originally a saloon built by a Scottish man for a Béarnais named Pierre Guillaume. A 1906 law outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol in the area around the local Veterans’ Home, and the building was bought in 1920 by John Lande, who turned it into a French laundry. The town’s mayor renovated the building in 1978 and opened a restaurant. The current owner, Thomas Keller, bought the restaurant in 1994, and made it the successful institution it is today.

A Bridge between Béarn and California

The Ligue Henri IV was originally a mutual support and protection association founded in 1895 by Béarnais immigrants in California. With 850 active members, it is now the largest French cultural association on the U.S. West Coast. Located at 1345 Bush St. in the Alliance Française building in San Francisco, it was long managed by Louis Lucq Jr., also a descendant of immigrants from France and the Basque Country. “My parents left their native Pyrénées to immigrate to the United States shortly after World War II,” he says. “I am first generation French, a quarter Basque, and I was raised in a French laundry!” His son Sean Lucq now heads the association. While all its members used to be from Béarn, the Ligue today welcomes anyone looking to join the group, following a collegial decision. Activities on offer include group trips, picnics, belote card games, and singing songs from the Pyrénées. Following its original traditions, the Ligue Henri IV also willingly helps a range of non-profit associations working towards the preservation of French culture such as the Alliance Française, as well as charitable institutions including the church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires and the Salvation Army.

Article published in the September 2015 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.