The Finnish laundry king of Bellingham

Charles Erholm reached Sehome in 1889 and opened a hand laundry in a rented basement

Mr. Clean Clothes: Charles Erholm, proprietor of Pacific Steam Laundry, in the early 1920s.

whatcom historical society
   The son of a sea captain, Charles Erholm was born in 1868, in Finland, and grew up listening to his father’s exciting stories of America. The young Erholm headed for the land of opportunity as soon as he turned 18, though not before promising his sweetheart, Elise Sviberg, that he would send for her when he was established in the United States.
   Erholm first settled at Merrill, Wis., where he worked a year before heading west in 1887. In Seattle, Erholm became friends with Olaf Udness, a recent arrival from Norway. The two immigrants shared the dream of finding success in their new country and made plans to start a laundry business together.
   Pooling their hard-earned savings, Erholm and Udness arrived in the small town of Sehome in early 1889 and, on Feb. 18, opened a hand laundry in a rented basement. The business partners’ larger ambitions became apparent that autumn when their new two-story laundry plant was completed at 1730 Ellis St. Known as Pacific Steam Laundry, it was the first laundry in Whatcom County capable of accommodating "commercial loads."
   The laundry advertised that it could offer a break to the average housewife, who did not have domestic staff or a chore girl. The era’s dress code and layers of attire, fancy by contemporary standards, easily overwhelmed the washboard.
   Pacific Steam Laundry featured the most advanced equipment of its day, including a "spring board washer." This early industrial washing machine was operated by a "washer man" who jumped up and down on a board that rested on a heavy spring. The board was connected by rope to a plunger that hung in a large wash tub. Jumping on the board moved the plunger up and down as an agitator.
   Charles wrote to Elise back in Finland that he was now an American businessman, and one fine day Miss Sviberg arrived in New Whatcom (the former Sehome) after journeying over ocean and continent. The couple were married on June 11, 1892.
   Mr. Erholm was admired for his considerate nature and had a reputation as a good man to work for. He inspired dedication among his employees, many of whom would labor more than 30 years for him. The laundry had started with seven workers, but by 1909 that number had increased to 50. In 1912, Pacific Laundry employed 75 people, most of them women.

Wash tubs and extractors inside Pacific Steam Laundry, circa 1915.

   Pete Kildall began delivering laundry for Pacific on March 26, 1899, when the delivery department consisted of one horse and buggy. By 1910, the laundry had six horse-and-wagon teams making the rounds. Drivers worked 10-hour days during the week and until suppertime on Saturdays. The laundry purchased its first delivery truck in 1915, prompting Mr. Kildall to learn how to drive a motor vehicle. Pete would put in 47 years as a delivery man for the company before retiring.
   Ingbert "Ed" Pederson started in the washroom of Pacific Steam Laundry in 1903. Thirty-five years later he had not missed a single day of work.
   He was offered vacation time, but never cared to take it. In 1913, Pederson suffered a broken arm while on the job and continued working for the next four hours.
   When Mr. Erholm heard of Ed’s injury, he immediately ordered him to see a doctor. Pederson used his lunch hour to have the arm set and, with his arm in a splint and sling, returned to the plant and finished out the day. He was on time to work the next morning.
   In 1908, Olaf Udness sold his share of the laundry business to Erholm. Udness had taken a lucrative position with the new Northwestern State Bank. Having found his fortune, Udness moved back to Norway with his family in 1911.
   Pacific Steam Laundry eventually took over the block from 1728 to 1738 Ellis St. The original 1889 building was still used, though surrounded on three sides by various additions.
   The company washed vast volumes of linens for hotels and restaurants, as well as everything from "bachelor bundles" to baby diapers. As demand increased, a new boiler room of "85,000 bricks" was added at the rear of the complex and fitted with a 150-horsepower boiler to run the belt-driven washing machines. As early as 1912 the laundry privately generated enough electricity to power its entire operation.
   Always quick to welcome new labor-saving innovations, Pacific Laundry went "through all the various stages of washing-machine development."
   By 1920, the firm had twelve enormous "wash wheels," or rotating tubs, each with a 600-gallon capacity. Six huge extractors reduced moisture from clothes "to the exact degree of ironing dampness."

Employees pose in front of the Pacific Steam Laundry buildings on Ellis Street, about 1910.

   Having started with flatirons heated on a wood stove, Pacific adopted electric irons and air presses shortly after they came on the market.
   A hand-laundry department was maintained for "delicate silks and dainty lingerie." There was a special "starch room" that offered everything from "gloss finish" to "smooth domestic finish." All nature of mending, including button replacement and patches, was also performed.
   The company prided itself on achieving the perfect collar for "every man who wears stiff detachable collars."
   As one of its 1915 ads stated, "Collars to be properly laundered with the least wear and tear must be molded into shape." The firm was the first in Whatcom County to have a collar-molding machine.
   In the flatwork department there were "mangles" that pressed laundry by passing it between heated rollers. The smaller mangles were for handkerchiefs, towels, and napkins, while larger mangles did table cloths and sheets. One giant mangle handled bed spreads, blankets and banquet cloths.
   Before washing, all clothes were sorted according to color and fabric with extra care taken to make sure "each family wash is kept separate from all other family washes."
   The marking department was responsible for keeping the orders straight. Water temperature and soap formulas were in compliance with standards set by the American Laundry Association and the American Institute of Laundry.
   In 1921, the Erholm’s son Casper began his apprenticeship in the family business. The Erholm’s daughter, Thelma, became the laundry’s bookkeeper upon graduating from the Anna Head School for Girls in Berkeley, Calif.
   Charles Erholm died on Feb. 18, 1926, exactly 37 years to the day that he and Udness had started their Sehome hand-laundry business. Charles was only 58 years old.
   Casper Erholm succeeded his father as manager of the business. In due time, he served as president of the Northwest Laundry Association. Mrs. Erholm, who had worked for years beside her husband, remained active in the daily operations of the laundry.
   Shortly before she retired in 1940, The Bellingham Herald described her as "one of the Northwest’s leading business women" and as having "a keen business brain." The paper made particular mention of the fact that "she drives her own car."
   Pacific Steam Laundry earned long-term loyalty from its customers. Contracts with local businesses were renewed for decades. When the company celebrated its 50th anniversary, Casper Erholm noted, "We have customers who started with my father when he first opened the laundry. We have served the second and third generations of some families."
   Fred Mawer purchased the business in 1951, renaming it Pacific Laundry & Dry Cleaners. In 1963, Mawer moved to "new modern facilities" at 901 Iowa Street, as the company became Bellingham Laundry, Inc.
   The historic Pacific Steam Laundry buildings on Ellis Street were torn down in early 1971.


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