My Turn: An indelible mark of a more formal time

Murray and Rhoda Samuels Nichter, here dressed for Murray and Rhoda Samuels Nichter, here dressed for the Metropolitan Opera in the 1990s, used to get dressed up for work or play. A meeting with a former laundry worker brought back memories. Photo Credit: Handout

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My husband, Murray, and I were in Shop-Rite on Old Country Road in Plainview a few years ago when this beautiful, tall, young Chinese woman walked up to my husband and said, "Hello, WN 1." We were startled for the moment until she said questioningly, "Moy's Laundry?"

Of course, this was Mr. Moy's now grown-up daughter who used to redeem our laundry ticket for Murray's beautifully washed and ironed shirts. She used to help out in the store after school. His laundry mark was WN 1. When we brought shirts in to be laundered, she would wrap them with a ticket that had a number on it and give us a ticket with the same number, which we would present when we picked up the washed and ironed laundry.

At the supermarket, she confessed that she never knew our name. My husband was always referred to by his laundry mark: WN 1.

How did we get such a simple laundry mark? Most laundry marks are a long series of numbers and letters. We had just WN 1. In 1948, when we were married, like a dutiful new housewife, I washed and ironed Murray's shirts just once. Murray's sympathetic reaction when he saw them was, "I think we better bring them to the Chinese laundry." I never washed and ironed his shirts again.

At that time, we were living in a summer bungalow that had been converted for winter use. After World War II, it was very hard to find an apartment, so we took this bungalow on Beach 25th Street in Far Rockaway for the winter at a rental of $79 a month. The nine-month winter rent was low, but the summer rate quadrupled. It was close to the Wavecrest station of the Long Island Rail Road's Far Rockaway line, which was convenient for us because we both worked in Manhattan and we did not have a car. Between our bungalow and the railroad was a small strip mall with four shops: a kosher butcher, a grocery store, a dry cleaner and a Chinese laundry. Since all of Murray's shirts were brand-new, 100 percent cotton bought by his mom as a sort of trousseau, they had no laundry mark. Thus, his personal laundry mark was created by the Chinese laundry and printed in indelible ink on the back of each collar: W (for Wavecrest), N (for Nichter, our surname), the numeral 1 for the first WN. This laundry mark was permanently his. I remember that in some old mystery movies, detectives would look for a laundry mark on the clothing of a dead body if there was no other identification.

In 1948, men who worked in an office wore suits with beautifully laundered shirts, ties, polished shoes, sometimes cuff links, a tie clasp and, when they went outdoors, a brimmed felt hat. Murray was a CPA and had clients who manufactured ties, hats, suits and other menswear, so he had to look good when he visited a client because people in the fashion business look you over carefully.

When he walked out of the house in the morning, he looked very professional and band box-stylish. Sometimes, he wore a gray Homburg, which was the style of hat worn by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne). I was very proud of my husband. He was my Prince of Wales.

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When we moved to Plainview in 1955, we started to use Moy's Laundry on South Oyster Bay Road. Mr. Moy took care of Murray's shirts until Murray retired in 1990.

Life is different today. Gone are the ironed shirts, ties, cuff links and tie clasps, brimmed hats and shined shoes. Today, we have synthetic, drip-dry shirts that come out of the dryer looking ironed (but cannot compare to the cotton shirts washed and ironed by Mr. Moy). Hardly anybody wears a tie. Cuff links and tie clasps have become collector's items. Hats have either disappeared or been replaced by baseball caps or hoodies. Shoes have been replaced by sneakers. Every day is dress-down day.

Things have changed. In the old days, when we went to the airport to fly someplace, we got all dressed up. I remember wearing a lovely suit, carefully chosen jewelry, a hat, gloves, high-heeled shoes and a matching handbag. My husband also was dressed meticulously. The stewardesses (now called flight attendants) were perfectly uniformed, coifed and made up. Flying was exciting and romantic. I looked forward to the meal that was served. I always ordered filet mignon. It was a tiny portion but always delicious. The stewardesses were very attentive and accommodating. All that has changed. Maybe it is better. Passengers now wear comfortable clothes, most airlines offer snacks instead of meals, flight attendants seem a little harried and are not so attentive and accommodating because they are short-staffed. Airlines do all they can to cut costs, even though the airfares go up. Today, an airplane flight is pretty much like a bus or train ride.

I remember how surprised I was when some people came to a matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera wearing dungarees and sweatshirts. On this particular day, we recognized the great opera star Plácido Domingo sitting in the fifth row on the aisle. The dungaree-clad people were seated two rows behind him. I was glad they were behind him, because I felt it was disrespectful to come to the opera dressed that way, and Domingo should be spared seeing them.

We had subscribed to the Met for many years and always dressed up as everybody else did. Going to the opera was a memorable event and part of the enjoyment was seeing some of the "beautiful people" in their minks and sables. As time moved on, I noticed that more and more people dressed down at the opera. I liked it better when we went to the opera at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, where everybody came in evening gowns and tuxedos. The atmosphere was more festive. But maybe the new informality is better.

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I also remember when I attended Winthrop Junior High in Brooklyn, a public school. Boys and girls had to wear a white shirt or blouse, a red tie, dark skirt for the girls and dark pants for the boys. Girls were not allowed to wear "slacks," as we called them. The school was very disciplined in all ways. We had a high scholastic standing, and I believe it had something to do with the discipline and de-emphasis on clothing. Today, I see young girls carrying expensive designer handbags to school along with their backpacks. The designer bag is a status symbol, along with the $80 sneakers.

As an octogenarian, I don't dress up very often. Most of the time, I am dressed down. I go with the times. Thinking about Mr. Moy's daughter brought back long-forgotten memories. Sadly, Murray passed away in 2010. He would have gotten a kick out of hearing me retell the story of his laundry mark.

Rhoda Samuels Nichter,
Plainview

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