In praise of laundry chutes, and other vintage technology

It's tidy, it's neat, it makes the dirty laundry go away. What's not to like?
(From Andy Johnston Construction of Vancouver, Wash.)

It seems to me you don’t see or hear much about laundry chutes any more. Why not? Such a clever invention!

In doing Round 1 of the never-ending exercise called “How We’d Like to Renovate the Manse,” Raymond and I had thought we would be very smart if we put our laundry room on the second floor (the suggestion of my old-home-renovation-expert brother John), which would mean no trotting up and down stairs with baskets of dirty and clean laundry. Since one generally takes off one’s dirty clothes upstairs, we reasoned, why not launder them on the same level?

Another reason for this cunning plan was that the Manse has, as I’ve noted before (and as John never fails to be amused by), very little plumbing. No long pipes the width or length of the house in our basement, carrying water (or waste water) to and from sinks or powder rooms or appliances in far corners or upper storeys. No, our plumbing is of the minimalist school: a few short pipes against the south wall of the basement, leading up to the ground-floor bathroom (which is also against that wall) and the pantry where the kitchen sink is (adjacent to the bathroom, also on the south side). That’s it. We had planned (and still do, actually) to continue in that minimalist vein and just extend the plumbing one storey up, to serve a much smaller WC on the ground floor, a new master bathroom immediately above it upstairs, and (we had thought) a new laundry room off, or in a corner of, that master bathroom.

The sum total of the plumbing at the Manse. It's the minimalist approach.

But a few more rounds into How We’d Like To Renovate The Manse, we’re thinking it might be better to put the washer and dryer in or adjacent to the small downstairs bathroom. One reason is that we could use the extra space in the upstairs bathroom for linen and other storage; the Manse is not overly endowed (to put it mildly) with closet/storage space. Also, it could make more efficient use of the downstairs space. And finally, the presence of a washer and dryer, even if they’re not operating, doesn’t really fit in all that well with the “haven” or “spa” mood that seems to be ever so popular for master bathrooms these days. When you’re soaking in your nice deep designer tub, do you really want to be listening to the undies in the spin cycle, or examining your supply of Tide to ascertain whether you need to pick up more the next time it’s on sale at Costco?

But having a downstairs laundry room brings back the toting-laundry problem, which was cause for more mulling. And then I suddenly remembered a nifty feature in the house my mother grew up in, on Sutherland Drive in the Leaside neighbourhood of Toronto: a laundry chute!

I couldn’t recall where the opening for that chute was, so I did what any investigative reporter would: I called up my mum. She explained that it was in a closet in a small upstairs bedroom that my grandparents – her parents – had turned into a den. The laundry room in that house was in the basement, so stuff you tossed into the chute went whooshing two floors down, landing in a basket in a recessed area beside the washing machine. (I don’t remember, and didn’t think to ask my mum, whether there was also an opening on the ground floor, for soiled dishtowels and whatnot.)

Anyway, the chat made my mum smile. That laundry chute was “the most brilliant idea!” she exclaimed.

Pneumatic tubes: what ever happened to them? Technology that was clunky and cool at the same time.

And then she got thinking about another cool thing from the olden days of her youth that you just don’t see any more: pneumatic tubes in businesses like department stores and banks. (You can read more about them here.) They were used, I believe, to convey payment to a central cash office – and perhaps to deliver change?

At the risk of dating myself more than I already have, I have actually used a pneumatic-tube system: in the days when newspapers had compositors, at the Globe and Mail we used to send layout plans down to the composing room using a tube system. Who needs PDFs and whatnot when you can transmit information from floor to floor via something that looks like it came out of The Jetsons?

Anyway, if we do put the laundry room on the ground floor of the Manse, we will look into also installing a laundry chute.

It would be quite thrilling also to have a pneumatic-tube system in the house, but I can’t quite think what we could use it for. Anyone got any ideas?

19 thoughts on “In praise of laundry chutes, and other vintage technology

  1. The ground floor is a great solution if you’re even halfway serious about a clothes line. Something’s always getting toted somewhere in our house with the laundry on the upper floor – dirty up/clean down, wet down/dry up. Christian doesn’t discriminate with his sock distribution.
    Scott had a laundry chute growing up in Campbell River and recalls it with a big smile plastered all over his face. Apparently he nailed in some cross pieces and he and his two brother used it as an escape hatch on more than one occasion.

    • I’ll second the main-floor laundry idea, since I’m borderline fanatical about hanging clothes out to dry. But truly, basements have to be the worst possible place for a washing machine! As for pneumatic tubes, wouldn’t it be great if there were one at the bottom of the stairs so all the odds and ends that belong on the upper level could just be sucked up instead of left there for tripping purposes?

      • That plus Hilary’s suggestion for finding a way to pneumatic-tube the clean laundry back upstairs are the best. Last night when I was looking online for laundry-chute photos I came across a brilliant one of the stairway in a typical family-with-kids house (like yours or Valerie’s) – socks and whatnot all over the place. Brought back lots of memories of my childhood. Of course when I went looking for it this evening I couldn’t find it again.

  2. Lud & I had a laundry chute in Toronto and I loved it. It went from the upstairs bathroom to the main floor laundry room. I vote for laundry downstairs because YES you will hang clothes outside. But wait….maybe you should be thinking of a dumbwaiter…It goes down and up.
    Check out Ultimate Die Corporation Custom Designed Dumbwaiter.

    • A dumbwaiter! Wow, another example of funky vintage technology – thank you, Elaine! Perhaps that would be a good way for early-rising Raymond to send me up a cup of coffee as I carry on the daily struggle to greet the day and rise from my nice comfortable bed …

  3. This post has brought me a belly laugh as I remember so vividly the laundry chute at Uncle Paul and Aunt Lucille’s home on Chase Ave. in Lowell. We had some great times with that chute…..picture kids tumbling through the chute and landing on piles of dirty laundry, laughing so hard they couldn’t stand up and running back up the stairs to do it all over again…..until we got caught, of course!!!

    • That’s classic, Lu – and I’m glad it brought back a happy memory! Only kids, it seems to me, would find being in a laundry chute great wild fun instead of (as I would see it now) terrifyingly claustrophobic. I bet you guys put some serious wear and tear on your aunt and uncle’s laundry chute!

  4. At the risk of getting all ‘Aunt Marion’ on your ass, laundry chutes are the lazy man’s answer to a non-problematic situation. Think of all those stairs you’ll miss climbing, and the consequential impact on your no-longer-girlish arse.
    As far as pneumatic tubes being ‘vintage technology’…….heh?? You lost me at ‘hello’, as Ken would say. My job runs on the pneumatic tube system. There is a front end worker assigned every day whose only job all day is to empty the tubes as they come streaming in. And word on the street has it that many jobs may soon be in danger as they consolidate services up and down hospital row, designing a pneumatic tube system to end all pneumatic tube systems that will take patient specimens from a central dispatchery to Sick Kids, Sinai, TGH, Princess Margaret….Do you believe it? George Jetson, get the f#@k out of the way! On the plus side, when I get laid off I’ll have way more time to spend at the manse. Please stock up on that house wine. Or get the still powered up.

    • That is just wild – that cutting-edge hospitals are coming up with cutting-edge pneumatic-tube technology. Now that I think of it, of course it makes sense given that the materials being delivered are real-life samples of blood (or other bodily fluids) – I’m so used to dealing with the transmission of documents that I’d forgotten there are things that can’t be turned into a PDF.

  5. Katherine, Ron and Karen have installed a laundry chute at their house at the lake. I don’t believe you’ve seen all the renovations yet.

  6. Does anyone know where I can purchase the laundry shoot door pictures in this article? We are renovating a house and are installing a laundry shoot. This door would be perfect

    • David, the picture came from the website of Andy Johnston Construction in Vancouver, Wash.; click here for that website, and here for the photos section, where the laundry-chute door can be found. Good luck with your renovation project; I would love to hear about (and see photos of)the finished laundry chute. I continue to maintain that laundry chutes are a totally excellent idea!

    • Whisper, thank you so much for this! I had never heard of the Laundry Jet, but thanks to your mention I looked it up. (Readers, click here to learn more.) what a cool thing! A combination of vacuum-tube system and laundry chute – what could be better? Great old technology, reborn and improved for the modern age!

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