I Quit My On-Demand Laundry Service

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In my study of time, I realized that these so-called conveniences were not actually saving me any.


Three months ago, on Oct. 18, I ended a five-year relationship with my provider of on-demand clean underwear. I did this first by deleting the app and then later throwing out three bags imprinted with their name.  Every week since, I have been tempted to get back together with them.

We met in the spring of 2014, just as I was just starting to dabble with online services that promised to make my life easier: a little Amazon for a $5 loofah here; a little Instacart for groceries there.

All of this was O.K. because my girlfriend and I had recently become obsessed with an essay by two Nobel Prize-winning economists, who had achieved professional success and marital bliss by prioritizing time over money through their 30s.

They believed in outsourcing all that could be delegated, no matter the cost. If their savings account was measly, so what? The payout would come later. (I recently revisited the link; it was not an essay and they did not have Nobel Prizes, along with other key differences. Oh well.)

Still, I was committed to my laundromat. It was right across the street. Until, one day, it wasn’t. Its lease was up. There were plenty of other laundromats nearby, and yet I spent more than a few days that spring wearing bikini bottoms under jeans, promising to develop a new washing routine tomorrow.

It was around this time that I first noticed the vans with a slogan promising clean underwear on demand. A cartoony drawing of white briefs reinforced the point, even from a distance. And in Brooklyn that year, there was always at least one of these vans in the distance.

The price seemed a bit steep. But as our favorite economists (to misremember) said: time over money! My girlfriend and I fell in love almost immediately. We would open the app, press a button and sometimes within minutes there would be a man bounding up the stairs.

Within hours, we would get an alert that our laundry was available for delivery. “How is this sustainable?” I wondered, but only briefly — because I was so very busy with all the future-enriching things that outsourcing enables.

One of those things was making a podcast about time. But even though, by 2017, I was obtaining most things in life — toothpaste, tacos, taxis — with two clicks, I was having trouble digging in.

“Where are the hours hiding?” I asked Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at N.Y.U.

Modern conveniences rarely save time, she told me, directing me to the work of the technology historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan.

In the 1983 book “More Work for Mother,” Dr. Cowan shows that the 19th century was brimming with oodles of innovations that promised luxurious downtime. “There were hand-driven washing machines and taps for indoor cisterns, eggbeaters and pulley-driven butter churns,” she writes.

Based on her analysis, however, none of these made life “one whit more convenient or less tiring during the whole of the century. What a strange paradox that in the face of so many labor-saving devices, little labor appears to have been saved!”

In the 20th century, just before World War II, automatic washing machines promised elusive blocks of nothing-to-take-care-of. What actually shifted was that people changed their underwear and sheets more often, creating more work of a different kind.

I was not sure how the laundry service was altering my behavior. Mostly I noticed other people’s socks. There was something charming about finding them amid our belongings. Some of my own clothes went missing, too.

But when you love someone and they are growing quickly, silk pants get lost. And if my darling was not maturing, then, to be fair, neither was I. Sometimes when I accused them of losing my shirt, they had lost my shirt. Other times it was just hiding in my closet.

Photo illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

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