Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Wonderful Chore of Ironing Clothes by E. Ayers

What comes after laundry day? The ironing. Not a pretty chore and certainly something that zapped the strength of our great-great grandmothers. We get off easy today with most of our clothes being permanent pressed. And if we do need to use the iron, they are lightweight steam irons that maintain the perfect temperature with special ultra slick surfaces to protect our clothing.
As a child I can remember my grandmother (born in the 1880's) using a funny looking thing as a doorstop. I asked my mom about it, and she told me it was an iron. Huh? As a small child it took two hands to pick that thing up. I tried it one time, and was scolded for if I ever dropped it on my feet… I probably would have crushed not just my itty-bitty piggy toes but also my little foot. It was my other grandmother who told me about irons. She barely scratched the surface, figuring I'd probably never need to know about such an antiquated item.
Zip forward to the present. Guess those women in my family never figured I'd grow up to be a writer of historical fiction. (Oh how I would love to pick their brains today!) So I've had to acquire the knowledge along my strange paths of research. Oh, be ever so thankful to have that electric steam iron with its super shiny surface, because going back even 100 years that wasn't the case.
Let's look at an old iron. The process of ironing is simple. Heat and water along with pressing the garment forces the molecules to move, allowing the fibers to stretch thus releasing the wrinkles. So way back in the 1800's and earlier an iron was made from (surprise!) iron, which is where we get its name. Fabrics were sprinkled with water, and often with water that had starch dissolved in it. That's the water portion of the process.😀 The pressing has never changed. It's what my grandmothers called elbow grease, or the manual job of moving the iron over the clothing. The heat came from heating the iron on a stove. Kitchen stoves usually were wood burning. But any sort of stove would work.
For the most part, every house had at least three irons. Two to heat while the other was busy pressing the fabric. When it cooled, you switched irons. But the more delicate the fabric the less weight or elbow grease was needed. So often an average household might contain six irons of two different weights or maybe nine with three different weights, that's based on per person ironing.
Now those heavy "doorstop" flat irons also had a competitive model. It was the box iron. As if
the iron wasn't heavy enough, a box iron contained a box that was filled with hot coals or hot stones. The nice thing was they tended to stay hotter longer being the heat source was in the iron. It could also make them extremely heavy.
Think you are getting the hang of this? I've not scratched the surface. You needed pads to pick the iron up, because an iron had a metal handle made from iron so the handle got hot. (Did you figure that one out?)
Today we just have to remember to keep our fingers from touching the bottom of the iron known as the sole plate. You would laugh at the number of times I've managed to burn the tips of my fingers usually trying to iron some lacy little edge on one of my baby girls' frilly dresses. And how
many times have I pulled the cookie sheet from an oven and burned my wrists? I don't think anyone would trust me with one of these old irons. Can you imagine the whole handle being that hot? Some brilliant person discovered they could add asbestos into those pads and protect the hands. Asbestos? Yikes!
In 1870 Mary Florence Potts patented what seemed like a wonderful invention. A detachable
Henry W. Seeley
wooden handle that allowed you to switch from one iron to another using that same "cool" handle. It worked but apparently wasn't super great. Then in 1882, Henry W. Seeley invented the electric flat iron. At fifteen pounds, it took a while to heat, and there was no electricity in our untamed west, on the back roads of our farms, or for those living in small towns. So the old heat-'em-on-the-stove irons were used well into the twentieth century for most families.
If you've ever used an iron frying pan, you know how important it is to protect and properly care for that pan. Well, those old irons were just as prone to rust after ironing all those clothes sprinkled with water. So they needed special care. As we all know, keeping that sole plate smooth is important to the fabrics so that we don't tear the material. (That's why mom said not to scratch the iron on zippers, etc.) To protect the old irons, they were sanded smooth. Then greased. Better get that right or you'd make a terrible mess of your next ironing job. That's got to be what fatback was originally used for because the recipes my Southern friends have that call for fatback, Yankees use bacon. 😉 Then the iron was wiped and waxed with beeswax. And it didn't take much beeswax or you'd have another mess. So when you were finally done ironing all day, you get to resurface those irons because you wouldn't want them to rust.
One more thing, everything you owned had to be ironed. Sheets, pillowcases, chemises, skirts (oh so long!), blouses, shirts, pinafores and jumpers (aprons), pants, hankies, underwear, stockings, even the babies' diapers, dishtowels, bath towels (skip thinking they were terry towels - usually made from hucking or something similar), everything had to be ironed and many things had to be starched! So try standing and ironing for hours with hot, heavy irons during the summer. And don't forget to keep that stove hot to maintain heated irons.
I'm so glad I live today. As for my iron, ah, I think it's in the closet upstairs, but I wouldn't make any bets. I don't even remember the last time I used it. I figure that's a good thing.


  1. Was going to do some ironing later today. Now I will do it with a big grateful smile! very interesting post

    1. A gallon of milk is under ten pounds, some of the irons weren't that light. And you don't have to sprinkle your clothes first. :-)

  2. I so agree about being glad I live today. I know where my iron is, but I haven't used it in a long time--and hope to keep it that way. Your post was very interesting because I didn't know about the care of those old irons.

    1. That was something I discovered during my research. Greasing and waxing? Ick! And if you don't do it correctly, you have a mess on your cloths and probably on the stove that you used to heat the irons.

  3. I actually collect sad irons and remember my grandmother using hers as a door stop. One of the cool things we found on our vacation (but didn't purchase) was a case with about 6 various sizes of the asbestos irons, with the changeable handles. It was $125 and I would have bought it had it all been there.

    I have sad irons in multiple sizes (the 1 piece cast iron) #3, #4, #5, 2-#6, #7 and 2-#8. The weight of each is about a half pound less than that number, which was precast weight. So a #8 iron weighs roughly 7.5 pounds. That would get heavy very fast. I found a #9 that I am sorry I didn't purchase and a #12. A tailors iron weighs in at roughly 18-22 pounds.

    I also have very small ones, that I thought were children's irons but have since learned were salesmen samples.

    1. I do have to admit I'm jealous of your collection. Got a gooseneck handle? I'm not certain when they were made. I just think they are pretty.

      Those salesman samples were so interesting. I didn't know they had miniature irons, too. But it makes sense because carrying the weight of all those heavy irons in a horse-drawn cart had to be rough. I guess mentally I've never progressed beyond the tinker's wagon. :-)

  4. Why are they called SAD irons? I have only heard the term flat irons before. And Grandma never mentioned the sanding/greasing/waxing...makes sense but Oh my gosh what a lot if work! Thanks for sharing what you learned.

    1. Sad is from old English meaning solid. They were made from a single heavy piece of iron. :-) Those solid irons made from iron have been around for centuries.

  5. I remember going on a tour of the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC and seeing an ironing board that was extraordinarily long for those long dresses and petticoats back then.
    My grandmother, back when she lived on a farm and had a coal stove had 2 irons, one in use and one heating on the stove. What a hot and exhausting process especially in the summer.
    I hate ironing. I actually have one, but I haven't used it in years.
    Women in those by-gone certainly worked hard and were so dedicated to taking care of every aspect of their household. Thank you for writing a post that makes me grateful to be living in this present day, E.


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