What happens to clothes after being dropped off at the dry cleaners is a mystery to most. People just drop off their cleaning and have no idea how their clothes get cleaned. Dry Cleaning is the art and chemistry of cleaning your garments with the absence of water. Even though it is called dry, your garments do get wet with chemicals and not water. Because of this, it is safer and avoids shrinkage. The chemical solvents are best at cutting grease type stains. Water based stains and mixed water and oil based stains may and usually do require some degree of water to be introduced to properly remove staining. Aside from the stain and soil fighting capabilities of dry cleaning solvents, it is also safe on most fabrics. It gives the fabric a soft and luxurious hand feel. The dry cleaning solvent is dispensed in a dry cleaning machine which looks like your standard washing machine but with the water being changed out for dry cleaning chemical solvents. After cleaning and flushing of the garments, the same machine becomes the dryer. It allows all the solvent to be reclaimed and reused with none escaping into the environment. Newer machines are both environmentally and cost conscious.
The earliest records of professional dry cleaning go all the way back to the Ancient Romans. For instance, dry cleaning shops were discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, a Roman city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Those cleaners, known as fullers, used a type of clay known as fuller’s earth along with lye and ammonia (derived from urine) in order to remove stains such as dirt and sweat from clothing. That process proved pretty effective for any fabric too delicate for normal washing or stains that refused to budge. (In fact, the industry was so prominent that there were taxes on collecting urine. Fullers generally used animal urine and would also maintain urine collecting pots at public bathrooms.)
As for more modern methods, traditionally, Jean Baptiste Jolly of France is generally named the father of modern dry cleaning. The story goes that in 1848, a careless maid knocked over a lamp and spilled turpentine on a dirty tablecloth. Jolly noticed that once the turpentine dried, the stains that had marred the fabric were gone. He conducted an experiment where he bathed the entire tablecloth in a bathtub filled with turpentine and found that it came clean once it dried. Whether a maid accident really had anything to do with it or not, Jolly used this method when he opened the often claimed first modern dry cleaning shop, “Teinturerier Jolly Belin”, in Paris. The term French dry cleaning got its name and an industry was born.