Pert Museum of Antique Fabric Care
of an Exhibit
by Kristen Vogt
Published on March 12, 2013
Museum: Pert Museum of Antique Fabric Care/
Visit Date: February, 2013
A museum is, in many cases, started with an interesting collection of objects by an avid collector who often feels a personal connection to the history and story of the objects. Said collector often then donates the collection to an existing public space in order to better educate the public in a visual manner, or perhaps starts their own museum in a small space to educate the public about their collection. With this stated, it is perhaps no surprise that the Pert Museum of Antique Fabric Care exists in a family owned Laundromat in Irving Park, a historic neighborhood in Chicago.
Tony Ludo was kind enough to let me interview him, tell me about both the history of the museum and take me on a tour of the objects. His family has owned the Pert Laundromat on Irving Park Road for more than a generation. Customers, many of whom were older residents who remembered when Irving Park was a rural suburb of the city, often commented on how cleaning clothes had changed through the years. When his father Frank questioned them further, many brought in old cleaning accoutrements –ranging from old soap boxes, to wash boards, to gasoline powered irons (!)- and a story behind the engineering and history of each of the items. Frank, in honor of both his profession and customers, began displaying the collections, happily telling the story and structure of each one of the pieces to curious visitors. Soon, collections came in from around the Midwest, including a giant series of irons from the Ozarks in Missouri and stoves from the Ohio River valley.
The museum and Laundromat is, like many personal collections, in just one room, and free to the public. The displays are tasteful and neatly arranged, almost begging for a picture-hungry customer to engage with them using their cameras. Tony is more than willing to give a tour of the displays, explaining the history and use of the various historical artifacts displayed on the walls and floor. It brings the museum alive to have an enthusiastic educator who is willing to give a tour on the collections; shockingly enough from a historic preservation perspective, he encourages visitors to test their strength using an actual historic ‘wife’ iron (called so a 3-5 lb iron that early 20th century housewives would use, though hinting of historical sexism) while comparing it visually to a professional ‘tailor’ iron (a 15-20 lb iron used by professionals for drapes and heavier cloth) that sits above the other irons. All of the artifacts listed off by Tony were from the United States, though it would have been interesting if there were some brought in by immigrant families, especially given the Northwest side’s historical roots. Additionally, when asked about the official collections of the museum, it was made aware that most of the accessioned items are on display, and the rest are simply in a box in the basement.
Although the design and mission of the Pert Museum was both inviting and easy to understand, the museum could have objectively separated these two parts of history—domestic and professional—into different displays and narratives. There was some confusion regarding what other objects on display were used by practicing tailors and seamstresses, as opposed to domestic workers and housewives, and which ones (such a scissors or sewing machines) were used by both. The museum could have used both narratives at hand to perhaps differentiate the types of hardware that could have been used for household washing and professional fabric care. With this in mind, it is understandable that both narratives might have been used in order to weave the story together, in order that both sides of this narrative bed are properly covered.
Also, the objects, for all of their tasteful display, do not possess any written signs about their background (as seen from the pictures), which could be debilitating for the visitor who cannot engage nonverbally with the artifacts at hand, or who might want to know more about the artifacts while the staff is busy. Additionally, the display is set very high, covering almost every inch of the walls; while this allows maximum space in the museum to put more materials in (let’s not forget the one-room issue!), it makes it challenging, if not impossible, for the visitor to get a good visual analysis at all of the historical artifacts at hand. Finally, there is an overwhelming challenge at hand if a visitor happened to have a child with them. Although the atmosphere seemed very nonchalant about an adult picking up and ‘testing’ an antique iron on the shelf, I would surmise there might be some hesitation with a smaller child wanting to pick up a heavy piece of equipment, or became bored. That being said, Tony did have a tempting bowl of candy on the counter for well-behaved children (or adult visitors, in my case!).
Overall, with the engaging staff and the displays, it does a good job of displaying an unusual collection. In many ways, it was a delightful throwback to a time when one could readily look into their neighborhood for a glimpse of history and a story by a merchant who knew their name. However, it does not adequately look into ways it could be more engaging: such as display tags, eye-level displays, and a clear narrative. Additionally, a clear understanding of what was a domestic object, as opposed to a piece primary used by professionals outside of the home, would have been ideal without possible tones of historic sexism within the description. With that acknowledged the Pert Museum of Antique Fabric Care makes do with the gifts that it does possess.