Geek Trivia

Old Faithful, The Famous Yellowstone Geyser, Was Once Routinely Used For?

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Answer: Laundry

Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in Yellowstone National Park in the United States and, arguably, the most famous geyser in the world. It was first named during the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition to the area that would become Yellowstone Park, and it was the first geyser in the park region to receive a name.

Over the years it has been the subject of speculation, scientific observation, and has served as a general geological and geographic curiosity: Old Faithful is called such because, faithfully, it erupts every 94 minutes and is, in fact, one of the most predictable geographical features on Earth.

Back in the 1880s, people put that predictability and hot water to good use doing, of all things, laundry. While we now prize Yellowstone and the features like Old Faithful therein as a pristine wilderness to be preserved, people weren’t always so respectful. During the early years, park goers and soldiers in the area would pack clothing down into the geyser where it would essentially boil and agitate for the hour and a half it takes for the geyser to build up pressure and erupt. The end result would be a fountain of hot and very clean clothing to be gathered up and hung to dry.

Henry J. Winser, in an early guide to the Yellowstone region, observed:

Old Faithful is sometimes degraded by being made a laundry. Garments placed in the crater during quiescence are ejected thoroughly washed when the eruption takes place. Gen. Sheridan’s men, in 1882, found that linen and cotton fabrics were uninjured by the action of the water, but woolen clothes were torn to shreds.

That last bit would have come as no surprise to a fiber specialist or laundress: cotton can withstand much higher temperatures than most fibers and putting your wool trousers in a giant vat of superheated geyser water is a sure way to destroy them.

Thankfully today we treat the natural wonders of the park a little more respectfully and tourists do their laundry before arriving to watch the spectacle of Old Faithful erupting.

Image courtesy of Jon Sullivan.