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  • Writer's pictureDebora Ellen Blodgett

Automobile Laundry : The Early Years of the Auto Wash Industry, 1900-1930

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Early Auto Wash Image

It's springtime! Are you thinking about taking a road trip? It's time to get the car ready. Many recognize March 28 as national car wash day.

Did you ever think about the origins of a car wash?

Pretty much as soon as cars were invented, innovators were designing apparatus for washing them.

Clearly, just as today, there was always the option of a sponge, bucket of water, and hose. But while you are out for drive, why not have someone else wash your car for you?

Early automobile washes mainly consisted of pipes and hoses for dispersing water to workers who would then wash, dry, and polish the automobiles by hand.

1901 Car Wash Patent

Filed in 1900, Skerritt V. Hanley of Milwaukee, Wisconsin was awarded patent number 673,433 on May 7, 1901 for his invention Vehicle-Washer. This invention provides for a vehicle washer that was to be suspended from the ceiling and attached to a water supply pipe. The essential feature of this invention was a swivel joint and a branched pipe projecting in either direction. [1]

References to automobile laundries began to appear as early as 1907. In San Francisco, California, a corporation entitled Automobile Laundry Co. was established on February 16,1907. [2]

The Motor World magazine announced in its 1911 edition "Automobiles 'Laundered' While You Wait." H.T. Barnhart, of Portland, Oregon operated this laundry in a garage. When the cars entered, a team of attendants washed the vehicle. The first set of attendants soaked the vehicle with water; the next team soaped; then rinse; followed by rough dry; after which a team air dried it; then the next team would polish the body; the final step was polishing the brass. The enterprise claimed to be able to handle 100 cars per day.[3]

In 1913, an article in Automobile Topics magazine announced "Another Car 'Laundry' Opens." The article indicated that "following the lead of a Pacific Coast concern about a year ago..." that an automobile laundry was to open in Detroit at 1221-1229 Woodward Avenue. The company slogan was "Everything back but the dirt!" The systemized approach enabled a vehicle to complete the entire wash process in 20 minutes. [4]

The above mentioned business, The Automobile Laundry, of Detroit, Michigan, was started by Frank D. McCormick, manager, and his associates. According to a 1913 article in The Detroit Times, this laundry was the only such enterprise east of Portland, Oregon. [5]

1913 Detroit Automobile Laundry

The above photograph depicts the interior of the wash and a wet floor is visible. Hoses descend from the ceiling and wash attendants are seen in the background. Printed on the back of the trade card: "Get the 'look new' habit. Dear Sir, Having installed special equipment and processes for cleaning and polishing automobiles and cleaning engines, we take this means of inviting you (whether you wash your car or leave it to others) to visit our Auto Laundry at 1221-1229 Woodward Ave., between Palmer and Hendrie Aves., and see what we have for your convenience and the betterment of your car. We have a large, light, roomy garage, specially equipped for the washing, polishing and thorough cleaning of automobiles. While you wait. Washing and polishing, 1.50; engine cleaning, 1.50, transmission cleaning, $1.00. Automobile Laundry, 1221-1229 Woodward Ave., Phone North 2302, 'Everything back but the dirt.' 443, pub. by A.C. Dietsche, Detroit, Mich." The card is postmarked June 18, 1913. [6]

1915 Auto Wash Patent

Innovations of car washing apparatus continued with William F. Saunders of Boston, Massachusetts who was awarded patent number 1,158,079 on October 26, 1915 for his invention Apparatus for Washing Automobiles and Other Vehicles. This invention sought to improve the method for washing automobiles by making an apparatus particularly adapted for garage purposes. This apparatus consisted of an overhead water supply pipe, an overhead track, and a carriage movable on said track. Two flexible hoses supplied water to the wash attendants. [7]

1916 Auto Wash Patent

Harry Mason of Detroit, Michigan, was awarded patent number 1,183,391 on May 16, 1916 for his invention Washing Apparatus. This invention consisted of connected frames with nozzles that sprinkled water on all parts of the running gear of an automobile. [8]

1920 Car Wash Employee

Car owners and industry magazines recognized that regular washing was crucial for proper automobile maintenance.

An illustration in a 1920 article appearing in the Clio Messenger entitled "Washing Car in Efficient Way" cautioned that "The body of an automobile must be carefully washed and cleaned; otherwise it will lose its beautiful finish." [9]

1921 Automobile Laundry

The Hudson-Frampton Motor Co., of St. Louis, Missouri, housed an efficient service station of modern convenience in 1921, as announced in Motor World magazine. In addition to a showroom and service area, the station featured an automobile laundry that had the capacity to wash 70 cars daily. The photo illustrates two attendants washing the car from above with hoses while it appeared the vehicle sides were washed with water emitted from pipes. [10]

1922 Car Wash Price List

Appearing in the March 23, 1922 edition of Motor Age was an article about the National Automobile Laundries Co., of Chicago, Illinois. This establishment featured a building solely for the purpose of cleaning and polishing cars. Special washing apparatus facilitated work on the cars; comprised of a combination of compressed air and water with a harmless soap solution. A number of sprays on each side of the car wash saturated the car with warm water. After the car stood between the sprays for a short time, it moved forward to an elevated track where wash attendants set to work with a sponge and chamois. After which, the vehicle was inspected and any finishing touches, such as polish was completed. Customers were seated in a waiting room while the process was completed. The photograph below illustrates the building exterior and interior. [11]

1922 Automobile Laundry
1922 Car Wash Patent

Harold E. Young of Minneapolis, Minnesota was awarded patent number 1,412,732 on April 11, 1922 for his invention Apparatus for Washing Automobiles. This invention provided an apparatus by which the hubs, spokes, and rims of automobile wheels were automatically washed while the vehicle body was washed either by hand or in a semi-automatic manner by means of a brush held in the hands and rotated by water pressure. [12]

In July 1922, The Reform Advocate announced "A New Industry." The Klean-Rite Auto Laundry Company was opened in Chicago, Illinois, by J.P. Nicholson, E.E. Hill, and George A. Peterson, Jr. [13]

1924 Car Wash Patent

The business was built around their novel patented technology that Jacob P. Nicholson assigned to Klean-Rite, Apparatus for Cleaning Motor Vehicles, patent number 1,502,115, awarded July 22, 1924. This technology sought to fill a need in the industry by providing a method by which a series of interconnected tanks containing water, detergent, and grease solvents were intermixed and then were emitted in a vaporous form and discharged through a nozzle. [14]

1925 Klean-Rite Ad

A 1925 advertisement by Klean-Rite touted that when adding their patented wash system to a service station, it "not only makes an attractive profit on the cleaning service, but it increases the volume of gasoline and oil sales." [15]

The March 1925 edition of Popular Science Monthly included a few photographs of the interior of an automobile laundry in Chicago. One attendant sprayed away dirt with a compressed air mechanism while a crew of cleaners operated wash hoses. [16]

1925 Chicago Car Wash

Similar to the article above, a 1925 article in Popular Mechanics gave a keen insight into the auto laundry industry with step-by-step discussion of the process. Harnessing the principles of factory production, the vehicle moved through a series of steps. This system, claiming to wash 720 cars per day, enabled the car owner to receive a clean car within 15 minutes. The system described occupied a 200 foot garage containing a well-lit lane to move vehicles through the process. As the vehicle passed through the various stages, a crew of 32 attendants performed different aspects of the cleaning process as illustrated in the below photographs. [17]

1925 Car Wash
1926 Car Wash

In the March 20, 1926 edition of The Literary Digest, an article about the automobile laundry industry quipped "If there is a laundry for one's linen why not a laundry for one's car?" The article went on to describe a Chicago firm which had materialized that idea. The equipment included two cold-water tanks, each with a capacity of 540 gallons. Another container, a soap mixer, contained 40 gallons. After the soap was placed in a tank, a jet of hot water mixed with the soap to create a lather. The mixture was then carried by pipe into two tanks, the capacity of each being 150 gallons. The washing was done by two pit-men. At points within the pit, pipes carried the solution for the washing. The process took 7 minutes. [18]

1926 Cunningham Auto Laundry Chicago

The Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record of August 14, 1926 featured the Automobile Laundry of Mr. V. Cunningham of Chicago. This modern facility housed a turntable and conveyor wash rack for automobiles. By means of this patented system, his plant in Chicago could turn out a completely washed car in 6 minutes. The process involved the car's motor first being covered to prevent water from interfering with the ignition. The inside of the car was cleaned with compressed air. The car was then rolled onto a turntable where it faced a washing rack. The racks were 200 feet long and 25 feet wide. The car was carried on conveyors through the system as a series of cold water streams were leveled upon it. An attendant on a constructed platform then washed the vehicle. Following that step, four attendants, one for each wheel and fender, removed the bulk of the dirt with a high-pressured air hose and warm water. Sponges and clear water were used to rinse. Excess water was removed with chamois and the car was inspected prior to return to the customer. Forty attendants, 20 men and 20 women, worked at this facility. [19]

1928 Car Wash Patent

By 1928, vehicle washing machines were becoming more complex in design. Howard S. Gibson of Washington DC was awarded patent number 1,682,902 on September 4, 1928 for his invention Vehicle-Washing Machine. The aim of this invention was to provide a machine that could wash a maximum number of vehicles in a minimum amount of time at a relatively low cost. The vehicle entered at one end of the frame and passed through three operating stations before emerging at the other end of the frame. The vehicle first was subjected to sprays that would loosen any dirt. Then the vehicle would be further soaked and rinsed as operators manually removed dirt. The final stage was rinse and sprays of warm air. [20]

1928 Car Wash Patent

Miner D. Woodling of Kansas City, Missouri was awarded patent number 1,694,197 on December 4, 1928 for a Vehicle Washing Tank. This invention provided a tank into which a vehicle would drive and the liquid in the tank would remove dirt from the wheels and lower carriage of the vehicle body. While the car moved through the tank, operators sprayed the top and sides of the vehicle. [21]

The May 31, 1930 edition of Automobile Topics magazine advertised an up-to-date car washing plant in Rochester, New York. Auto Wash Inc. claimed capacity to wash 350 cars per day. It was equipped with a high-pressure flood capacity washer, Ingersoll-Rand compressor, Sturtevant blower for air drying the cars, and an Atwood vacuum cleaner for cleaning the upholstery. A separate department was devoted solely to polishing. [22]

1915 Image Old Man on Mountain NH

The automobile laundry industry continued grow and prosper with locations in nearly every major city and town. Innovation continued and processes were improved with each coming year.

The next time you are out for a ride and visit your local car wash, remember these early inventors, innovators, and auto wash owners. They paved the way for the car wash industry we recognize today. [23]


[1] "USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www. accessed 26 March 2022), Skerritt V. Hanley, Vehicle-Washer, patent no. 673,433 (1901).

[2] C.F. Curry, Secretary of State, Biennial Report of the Secretary of State of the State of California (Sacramento : W.W. Shannon, 1908), 35; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[3] “Automobiles ‘Laundered’ While You Wait,” The Motor World (Vol. XXX, No. 1 : 28 December 1911), 698; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[4] “Another Car ‘Laundry’ Opens,” Automobile Topics, The Trade Authority (Vol. XXIX, No. 1 : 15 February 1913), 112; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[5] “Who’s Who In The Automobile Field,” The Detroit Times, Detroit, Michigan (21 July 1913), p. 3, col. 5; Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[6] “Automobile Laundry,” digital image, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library ( : accessed 27 March 2022 ), resource ID bh000929.

[7] "USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www. accessed 26 March 2022), William F. Saunders, Apparatus for Washing Automobiles and Other Vehicles, patent no. 1,158,079 (1915).

[8] "USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www. accessed 26 March 2022), Harry Mason, Washing Apparatus, patent no. 1,183,391 (1916).

[9] “Washing Car in Efficient Way,” The Clio Messenger, Clio, Michigan (15 July 1920), p. 2, col. 5; Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[10] “A Real ‘Service Station of Today’,” Motor World (Vol. LXVIII, No. 1 : 6 July 1921), 27; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[11] “Automobile Laundry for Washing and Polishing Cars While You Wait,” Motor Age (Vol. XLI, No. 12 : 23 March 1922), 13; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[12] "USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www. accessed 26 March 2022), Harold E. Young, Apparatus for Washing Automobiles, patent no. 1,412,732 (1922).

[13] “A New Industry," The Reform Advocate (Vol. LXI, No. 1 : 4 February 1922), 663; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[14] "USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www. accessed 26 March 2022), Jacob P. Nicholson, Apparatus for Cleaning Motor Vehicles, patent no. 1,502,115 (1924).

[15] “Klean-Rite Auto Laundries,” advertisement, National Petroleum News (Vol. XVII, No. 19 : 13 May 1925), 61; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[16] “Better Service for the Motorist,” Popular Science Monthly (March 1925), 94; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[17] “Auto Laundry Cleans Car Every Minute,” Popular Mechanics (Vol. 43, No. 1 : January 1925), 7; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[18] “The Automobile Laundry,” The Literary Digest (Vol. LXXXVIII : 20 March 1926), 24; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[19] “Laundry Washes Car in Six Minutes,” Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record (Vol. 38, No. 7 : 14 August 1926), 5; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[20] "USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www. accessed 26 March 2022), Howard S. Gibson, Vehicle-Washing Machine, patent no. 1,682,902 (1928)

[21] "USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www. accessed 26 March 2022), Miner D. Woodling, Vehicle Washing Tank, patent no. 1,694,197 (1928).

[22] “Rochester Auto Wash Opens,” Automobile Topics (Vol. XCVIII, No. 1 : 10 May 1930), 282; Google Books ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

[23] Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. Old Man of the Mountain profile, White Mts., N.H. , Library of Congress ( : accessed 27 March 2022).

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Copyright 2022 ~ Debora Ellen Blodgett


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