Saturday, August 28, 2010

Swastika Laundry

For some reason the thought of the Swastika Laundry came into my mind the other day.
For those unaware of this particular slice of Irish material culture the Swastika Laundry was a venerable institution in Dublin, founded in 1912. It operated from Shelbourne Road in Dublin 4 and remained in business until the late 1960s. I remember vividly the cream and brown coloured labels they used to tag their deliveries and the electric vans that they were delivered in. Now, seeing as this would have been 1967 or 8 it must have been just prior to their eventual demise.
And quite a sight the labels and vans were too, emblazoned with that most remarkable of symbols, the…er…swastika. The photograph below is available on the Dublin City Council website, and depicts the livery of the company on a van used in the series “Caught in a Free State”. I certainly don’t remember the vans as being red, so perhaps this was a previous livery that the company used (or perhaps they overdid the look to make it more Nazi-like – but even so the Swastika remained the symbol of the company).

According to an Irish Times report from some years ago the Laundry changed it’s name in 1939 to Swastika Laundry (1912), perhaps in an effort to preempt a successful German invasion of launderers fired up on National Socialism, and ready to orient the Swastika in the opposite direction.
Because it is strange, but true, to consider that the Swastika laundry used the Swastika in it’s original configuration.
Even more strange is the thought that the brick chimney at Shelbourne Road was also decorated with a Swastika and the name of the company up until the late 1960s. Irish Eagle has a photograph which I hope I can get a scan of of just that location.
So what was it about? The logo was introduced at a time well before it’s association with National Socialism. It was a symbol of good luck, originating in India. It was configured facing left to right which is the correct Indian orientation.
Yet it’s hard not to believe, if only judging from the way in which the van above, which would date from the post-War period, is decorated with the Swastika set within a white roundel with two horizontal bars on either side and set against a red field in an almost exact emulation of the Nazi symbol, that the most unpleasant connotations of the symbolism were being – at best – parodied.
So here we have it. Ireland’s capital city, graced with laundry vans plying their trade hither and yon decorated in arguably the most reviled political symbol of human history.
In some respects it speaks of an innocence regarding the power of visual symbolism. But it is difficult to judge at this remove the true motivation behind it’s use. Was it a sense that the Swastika Laundry had it first and therefore it had some ‘ownership’ of the image? It certainly tends to indicate an insularity as to the significations of the Swastika, and perhaps within a culture that reified the written and spoken word over the visual this isn’t quite so surprising.
And it raises interesting and troubling questions regarding the nature of other imagery that has political connotations.

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