History of Ironing

Flat irons

When someone in the Historical Society talks about a flat iron, we are not talking about something used on the hair.  We are talking about something used to iron fabric.

Blacksmiths started forging simple flat irons in the late Middle Ages. Plain metal irons were heated by a fire or on a stove also used.

An older model flat iron with iron handle

Flat irons were also called sad irons (sad means heavy) or smoothing irons. Metal handles had to be gripped in a pad or thick rag. Some irons had cool wooden handles and in 1870 a detachable handle was patented in the US. This stayed cool while the metal bases were heated and the idea was widely imitated.

It took 1½ hrs to heat a 6 pound iron.  So you’d need at least two irons on the go together for an effective system: one in use, and one re-heating. Large households with servants had a special ironing-stove for this purpose. Some were fitted with slots for several irons, and a water-jug on top.

At home, ironing traditional fabrics without the benefit of electricity was a hot, arduous job. Irons had to be kept immaculately clean, sand-papered and polished. They must be kept away from burning fuel, and be regularly but lightly greased to avoid rusting. Beeswax prevented irons sticking to starched cloth. The temperature of the iron had to be constantly monitored.  Experience would help decide when the iron was hot enough, but not so hot that it would scorch the cloth. A well-known test was spitting on the hot metal, but Charles Dickens describes someone with a more genteel technique in The Old Curiosity Shop. She held “the iron at an alarmingly short distance from her cheek, to test its temperature…”

Ironing fabric was a hot and tiresome job.  The irons were very hot and the metal irons were very heavy, as they were made of solid cast iron. People don’t iron much anymore.  But, the irons that are in use are a huge improvement over the ones used in the past.

At the barn we have an old stove and iron on display .  Come by and see them!