Down to the Sea in Topsiders Go Houston's Preppy Laundresses

updated 05/09/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It wouldn't wash in The Official Preppy Handbook, but four women straight out of the monogram-sweater-and-loafer set are cleaning up in their new business, ships' laundry.

Since last December this indefatigable foursome, operating under the corporate name of Port of Houston Washerwomen Inc., has been personally picking up mountains of dirty sheets, pillowcases and tablecloths from the tankers and freighters that call at the busy Houston Ship Channel and, after a visit to a coin-op laundromat, delivering freshly washed and folded linen back to the vessels within 12 hours.

Founding sudswoman Dina Jones and her friends have seen their business increase to some 8,000 pounds of laundry—$7,300 in receipts—a month. That works out to $5,300 a month after expenses as net profit for the women to share. They estimate the money could grow to five times as much if the fledgling company succeeds in its goal of capturing a quarter of all the ships' laundry business in the Port of Houston.

Jones, 35, the divorced mother of two, used to spend her time working for a travel agency and dabbling in volunteer work for the local opera and ballet. When a friend in Savannah, Ga. mentioned that the ships' laundry idea had been tried there, Jones did some homework and found that 5,500 ships annually slip into Houston, each bringing, she says, an average of 400 pounds of soiled linen. With travel agency co-workers Julie Stamp, 33, and Pam Catron, 35, she decided to compete for business held by three local companies. Dina (who had previously only glimpsed the Ship Channel from her black Mercedes as she sped past it to the Houston Yacht Club) and friends now frequent the grimy docks—often at 2 a.m.—picking up loads and negotiating laundry deals with ships' stewards.

The piles of laundry grew so fast that last March the women enlisted Sara Moreland, 31 (formerly an IBM sales representative), to help with sales and collection. Sometimes working in pairs, the four now clamber up the steep and swaying gangplanks, cajoling foreign mates into helping them heave the heavy duffels into the back of their van. (American crews, they've found, are ready to joke, but rarely pitch in.)

So far the Washerwomen are still raising horn-rimmed eyebrows back at the club. "I'm the center of attention at cocktail parties," laughs Stamp. But Dina Jones' 13-year-old daughter is just plain embarrassed about her mother's newfound occupation. "She needs to know about the real world," says Dina, unfazed. "I tell her it's what keeps her in Polos."

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