Q: What’s a “laundry list” anyway? Do people itemize their dirty socks? Even when I go to a laundry, they give me a receipt with a per-pound price, not any kind of list. “Grocery list,” yes. “Laundry list,” wha…?
A: The term “laundry list” has been used literally since the 1860s and figuratively since the 1930s. Here’s a literal example from the old Hotel Astor at Times Square:
As Merriam-Webster explains in an etymological note, the expression first appeared in the 19th century with the rise of commercial laundry services.
“When you took your laundry to a commercial laundry establishment,” the dictionary says, “you had to make a record of what you’d sent; this ensured both that you got back what you’d sent, and that you paid for what got washed. And that is where the laundry list comes in.”
By the 1860s, the dictionary says, “some enterprising souls had seen fit to create laundry lists that itemized all the varieties of potentially dirty articles with a place for the user to enter the tally for each item.”
The dictionary cites this description from the March 4, 1871, issue of The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu):
“Mr. W. M. Wallace has got up a very neat and convenient card for laundry lists, which on examination will at once strike one as useful as well as novel. The different articles of clothing sent to the wash are by an ingenious arrangement numbered each under its separate head, without the bother of writing or making figures. There are separate lists for ladies, gentlemen, and families, and every ordinary article of clothing that requires washing has its separate place, from one piece up to twelve. We are confident that on trial it will be found of indispensable use in every household, and a valuable source of economy.”
The earliest example we’ve found for the term “laundry list” used literally is from “The Art of Travel in Europe,” a review of tourist guides in the July 1863 issue of The National Review, a short-lived British quarterly.
In discussing the organization of foreign words and phrases in various categories, the authors say “the chief articles of dress occur in two, the toilette and the laundry list.”
As for the figurative sense of the expression that’s often seen now, Merriam-Webster says “a laundry list is ‘a usually long list of items,’ and it’s used to refer to lists of varying kinds.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is a headline in The Illinois State Journal, Springfield, May 9, 1938: “Girl Should Make Laundry List of Marriage Factors, Then Proceed to Pick Man.”
Finally, we should mention that a predecessor of the literal “laundry list” was a “washing bill,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a statement of laundry-charges.”
The first OED citation for the earlier usage, which we’ve expanded, is from Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, completed in 1803 but published posthumously in 1817.
Catherine Morland, the young protagonist, discovers a roll of paper in a cabinet in the bedroom where she’s staying on a visit to the Abbey. She imagines that she’s found a precious manuscript but then learns otherwise:
“Her greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false? An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand.”