This week’s Marketplace Spotlight shines on a “de-wrinkle” in time! We’re discussing the history of ironing. It is quite difficult for modern historians to determine the exact date of when humankind began to press and smooth cloth; however, most sources point to China as being the forebearers of ironing as we know it today. The ancient Chinese used pans of iron or bronze to press stretched cloth, and this practice was quite common by 632 AD.
Moving forward a half-century, evidence of primitive ironing techniques started appearing in late Middle Age Europe. Blacksmiths began forging basic flat irons, generally made of iron or stone, with some eastern examples made of terracotta or soapstone. All of these irons were heated by an open fire or stove, and the launderer had to be wary of soot, embers and temperature to avoid scorching the cloth.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, flat or “sad” irons became typical in western households. These were manufactured in many different styles. The term “sad” is an Old English word for “solid,” distinguishing the heavier irons from the flat irons. To iron effectively, the launderer had to use two irons; one for pressing and the other for reheating. In some laundries and larger homes a special stove was implemented (the sad iron stove), and was able to heat several irons at once by aligning the irons around the trunk of the stove.
These early irons had difficultly retaining heat, so charcoal, or “box,” irons were invented in the 18th century. These irons were essentially a lidded container filled with hot embers from a fire or brazier, and used air vents to let the smoke escape while continuing to smolder. This allowed the iron to stay warm longer.
“Chimney” irons had a small chimney added on the side of the sad iron to keep the smoke away from the user’s face or clothes. These were also produced in the 19th century. Throughout the 19th century, many clever inventors patented various styles and designs of the sad iron, including early crude steam irons with mounted water tanks. The most important aspect our generation must realize about laundering is the incredibly grueling task it was to iron before the advent of electricity. Fires had to be tended to all day by servants, and it even became customary in colonial America that Mondays were “wash-day” and Tuesdays “ironing-day!”
The Gateway Museum at Nature’s Art Village hosts a number of sad irons, flat irons, trivets, washing machines and devices, all housed in our Laundry Shop exhibit. The PAST Antiques Marketplace at Nature’s Art Village also features an assortment of laundry related antiques and collectibles. To learn more about the history of laundry and ironing, please visit our massive collection on Route 85 in Montville, Connecticut!