I heard the following statement in the success story of Philip Armour, the captain of American meatpacking industry, which was broadcasted on radio by Success Journal on April 15th, and was interested in the expression, “take (one) to the cleaners”:

“Philip Armour had struck gold, selling canned food to hungry miners. His Armour can meats are still popular. But when he came time to diversify things, Philip didn’t want to be taken to the cleaners, or have his company get scrubbed out. He needed a guaranteed winner, or product just about everyone would buy.”

Google Ngram shows that the phrase came into use during 1930 through 1940, and after a brief hiatus, it started to regain currency from 1960 from 0.00000005% to 0.00000014% level in 2000.

Cambridge online dictionary defines the meaning of this idiom as;

to get a lot of money from somebody, usually by cheating them.

I feel like associating “take to the cleaners” with a Japanese idiom, 身ぐるみ剥ぐ、which means to rob a person of all money and property by stripping off his or her clothes cleanly. What is the origin of “take to the cleaners”? Why did this idiom come up so late in 1930?


I wasn't aware of possible duplication of my question with the previous question asking the meaning and origin of this idiom posted by apparently German user, Hauser in January 2017, until being advised of so by both Listeneva and Janus Bahs Jacquet after posting.

But most humbly, given answers to the previous question don't seem to me very clear and definite enough about the source of origin of the phrase. Could somebody give the pages, titles, authors of the reliable sources articulating the origin of this idiom? I don't think it so difficult for you native English speakers, English language connoisseurs to come up with them in light of relatively recent advent of the idiom.


1 Answer 1


The Cleaners

Cleaned out in the sense of ‘no money after (gambling) losses’ first appears in an American edition of a play performed at Covent Garden that same year:

Tyke. So what with that and playing cards … I was —
Lord Avon. Ruined.
Tyke. Yes; as Jockey Lords said — completely cleaned out. — Thomas Morton, The School of Reform (comedy), Philadelphia, 1805.

It may be obvious to point out that an idiom send/take to the cleaners with a quite similar meaning requires 1) people referred to as cleaners and by metonymy, their workplace, and 2) customers who had textiles to send there.

The first condition is satisfied by shops that specialized in textile cleaning beyond the shirts and heavy cottons either washed at home or sent to laundries: woolen suits, furs, leathergoods, silk dresses, rugs and carpets, curtains, etc. The second condition is met by a growing urban middle class whose household, at least until World War I, might have included one or two servants, but who needed to send large or more delicate items to professional cleaners. As the 20th c. progressed, this would increasingly include dry cleaning, or “French cleaning,” as it was initially called, after the country where it was first patented:

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New York Tribune, 21 Apr.1883.

Between you and me, I should not wish to inquire how long a fashionable girl will wear a five-dollar French corset without sending it to the cleaners, for washing, you know, spoils its perfect set, and French cleaning is expensive. — Indianapolis Journal, 19 May 1889.

In case you’re wondering, $5 in 1889 was worth $136 in 2018 dollars. With the New York dyer now offering French cleaning and the fashionable woman wondering how to clean a corset, the stage is set for metaphoric extensions of sent/taken to the cleaners.

To the Cleaners (Sports)

The first metaphoric sense of send/take to the cleaners sprouted in that always fertile soil of colorful metaphors: sports reporting for daily newspapers. At this point, however, it isn’t about losing money, but simply losing:

When the bill [permitting prize fights in Nevada] became a law, he set about arranging a match between Corbett and Fitzsimmons, and as Jim had taken a change of heart regarding his renouncing of the game, which he did on the night after Maher sent O’Donnell to the cleaners in jig time …— Salt Lake Herald, 10 June 1906.

Both O‘Keefe and Tibbitts, the main event performers, seemed out of condition and it did not take long, to show that lack of form was the principal feature of the contest. O‘Keefe showed whatever skill or class there was, but Tibbitts was strong and aggressive, especially in the earlier rounds, and on several occasions he had O‘Keefe ready to be sent to the cleaners. — San Francisco Call, 16 Mar. 1910.

Eddie is a pugnacious sort of a chap all right, and down in California has sent more than one ragged ball player to the cleaners. Tacoma Times (WA), 24 Apr. 1911

And there were hundreds of other bouts in which ambitious youths were sent to the cleaners in a space of time that was alarming. — Bisbee Daily Review, 21 Jan. 1912.

Case was second to Nicholson of Missouri, last year at the games, but since that time has taken “Nick” to the cleaners on several occasions. — Urbana Daily Courier, 16 April 1913.

So many athletes and teams were sent/taken to the cleaners in the years since the expression emerged that it made a 1913 list of synonyms for lose:

To Lose — To tumble, skid, slip, take a walloping, a drubbing, to be manswadled, trimmed, whaled, scuttled, riddled, badly bent, bumped, slaughtered, nosed out, sent to the cleaners, counted out or laid on the cooling board. — “Some Baseball Slang,” Chicago Eagle, 20 Dec. 1913.

To the Cleaners (Money)

The first use of to the cleaners in the sense of losing money occurs in a humorous poem about making ends meet:

Economy the watchword is,
And we are careful gleaners.
In spite of that our pocketbook
Goes weekly to the cleaners.
Some new and patent food we need,
A substance cheap and lasting,
Or else I very greatly fear
We'll have to live by fasting. — Rock Island Argus (IL), 19 Feb. 1912.

Were this the only attestation, it could be dismissed as a nonce usage, a clever metaphor in a poem. The second usage, however, confirms that the expression has entered the language.

In 1912, a boxing promoter arranged a prize fight in Las Vegas — the one in the new state of New Mexico, which still had no law against such events. Local businesspeople had sponsored the fight with a $100,000 investment, $2.6 million today, and expected a return, both in media attention and tourist dollars:

EAST LAS VEGAS, N. M., JULY 2.— Las Vegas voraciously awaits the coming throng. Although the “citizens’ committee” has promised to keep the eats and flops within the reach of all, the dealers will not stand hitched and today’s bulletin shows that the price of eggs has flown and even the homely diet of “ham and” is reaching the aviating stage... This gang will never come again, the governor says so, at any rate—and why not send them to the cleaners while the time is ripe? — Abilene Daily Reporter (TX), 3 July 1912.

In this fight then, it was the fans who were sent to the cleaners, not the loser of the bout.

The expression, of course, was not limited to sports events:

A conviction is growing that there will be plenty of 8-cent hogs during the next ninety days, and that along toward March substantial figures will be written on sale tickets, provided, of course, that the country does not go to the cleaners in a financial and industrial sense meanwhile. — Chicago Livestock World, 13 Nov. 1913.

A lot of people go to the cleaners in this manner, which is called “speculation'” … And then take the other forms of gambling—cards, dice, roulette and what have you. It isn’t always the “Joints” that drag in the suckers. I’ve been taken to the cleaners more than once in a friendly game in somebody's parlor. — Rockland County Evening Journal (Nyack NY), 25 Apr. 1931.

  • At least regarding the sports usage, doesn't that refer to being sent to the cutman or an equivalent - someone who cleans up wounds and blood? Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 17:32
  • @TaliesinMerlin: it wasn't just used for boxing (Nicholson of Missouri is hurdles, for example), plus the plural doesn't make sense, though a few spell it cleaner's, like going to the doctor's.
    – KarlG
    Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 19:38
  • Right; I'm saying that the early usage seems to pertain to something like "going to the cleaner's" - the cut an in boxing or the equivalent in ball or track/field. In idiom, the possessive disappears. Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 19:47
  • 1
    @TaliesinMerlin: I thought that as well until other, less bloody sports started showing up.
    – KarlG
    Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 19:56
  • @KartG. I think this is a really elaborate answer that comes to point, which I couldn’t find in the previous question to my regret. I learned quite a lot from your answer. I think my post deserved “Duplication”, which drew out your answer. Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 20:36

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