The process of dry cleaning is not actually ‘dry’. It involves cleaning of delicate fabrics such as silk and wool with the help of chemical solvents. It was discovered accidentally during the mid 18th century.
Jean-Baptiste Jolly was a French dye-works owner. One day he was surprised to see that a small area of his dirty tablecloth looked a lot cleaner. He realized that this had happened when his clumsy maid spilled kerosene on the tablecloth when she knocked down a kerosene lamp. Jolly was quick to take advantage of his discovery and expand his business. He started using kerosene and gasoline in order to clean fabrics which would otherwise get spoiled if washed with soap and detergent.
Industrialists soon caught on this method of dry cleaning clothes and started experimenting with petroleum based solvents. One major disadvantage of these solvents was that they were highly inflammable. A number of fires and explosions caused by these solvents were reported. Hence people started looking for substitutes which would be safer to use. American dry cleaner William Joseph Stoddard introduced Stoddard solvent (white spirit) which was slightly less flammable.
The dry cleaning solvent widely used is tetrachloroethylene, commonly known as ‘perc’. It is volatile, highly stable, and nonflammable and can be recycled easily. However this solvent produces toxic waste and is classified as a probable human carcinogen.