To most of those outside the industry, dry-cleaning is a dark and mysterious process. Fact is: there’s nothing “dry” about it.
Dry cleaning simply means cleaning clothes in a solvent other than water
Dry cleaning was invented in the eighteenth century, when a Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Jolly discovered that he could remove soils from the elaborate garments of the day by dipping them in “spirits”. Since then, a variety of solvents have been used to dry clean.
Initially, cleaners used benzene or carbon tetrachloride. Both are very effective cleaning agents, but it was discovered that they are also extremely toxic. By the 1920s, the industry had settled on Stoddard solvent, a compound similar to paint thinner. Stoddard solvent was a fantastic cleaning agent, but also highly flammable. Because of this, plants using Stoddard had to be large scale operations to justify the expense of fireproof, explosion-proof quarters for cleaning equipment.
In the 1930s a revolutionary solvent was introduced to the industry. Perchlorethylene, known as “perc,” is an aggressive solvent that makes short work of grease and oily soil, but has little or no impact on fabrics. Unlike Stoddard, it is non-flammable, and unlike carbon tetrachloride and benzene, it has low toxicity. This opened the door for smaller operators to get into dry cleaning. After the advent of perc, mom-and-pop operations became the norm in the industry. Perc is still the current industry standard, and is used by almost all dry cleaners.