We are fortunate to live in a time of perennially wrinkle-free clothing. When I was a child, my mother used to drag her iron and ironing board into the living room to iron my father’s dress shirts and pants every week. I assumed that I, too, would need to learn this skill, because as a dutiful wife, I would need to iron my husband’s suits each week.
But that didn’t end up being the case. Thanks, permanent-press clothing, feminism, and the business-casual workplace!
But while my mother’s ironing chores seemed arduous and I’m glad I managed to avoid them, they were far less difficult than the work of the mothers that came before either of us, in the long, long ago. Before the electric iron, the pressing process was much more difficult, and much...warmer.
The electric iron’s analog ancestor was known as the sad-iron. This name did not come from the feeling of malaise that overcame anyone who had to wield it on a regular basis. That was just a happy coincidence. “Sad” is an Middle English word for “solid,” or “heavy,” which are both apt words to describe these hefty flat irons. They sometimes weighed upwards of 9 pounds for home models—more for those used professionally by tailors.
“The term ‘sad-iron’ is somewhat vague,” said Jay Raymond. Raymond is the editor of Pressing News, the quarterly newsletter for the U.S. club for pressing iron collectors, and he has a blog and book about vintage electric irons. “Generally it referred to any iron used to smooth fabric, but mostly it applied to irons you would heat on the stove.”
When electric irons began to appear in the 1890s and into the 20th century, he said, they were referred to as electric sad-irons.
Early versions had their drawbacks. They were, as mentioned, necessarily heavy—the cast iron held in heat, and its heft helped to press the garment flat. And they were, of course, incredibly hot. The handles were not insulated, and the iron had to be lifted using thick rags, to avoid getting burned.
These are relics of a time when women’s work was scheduled out to song.
“Wash on Monday, Iron on Tuesday…”
Ironing would take all day—especially for those women unfortunate enough to afford only one iron. Ideally, there would be a rotation of at least two: one to use, and one to heat on the coals.
But it was not unusual for those with irons to have access multiple. Because those people were working for someone far more wealthy than they.
“Before the Industrial Revolution, an iron was something only wealthy people could afford to own,” Raymond said. “The materials were scarce, and the technology to make them was expensive.”
Those irons, however many were owned, would require proper care but when in use and not. The temperature of those irons were difficult to regulate: too cool, and the clothes wouldn’t be pressed, too hot and they would be scorched.
They had to be kept spotlessly clean and polished, free of soot and anything else that could be transferred onto the clothing when in use. Beeswax applied to the bottom of the iron would keep it from sticking to the clothing.
Sad-irons and other similar flatirons can often be found at estate sales across the country, and are coveted by collectors. There are a few basic types of sad-iron you might come across:
A traditional sad-iron, the flat iron was designed to sit directly on a hot stove to reach its proper temperature. As mentioned before, everything on these irons would heat up in the fire, including the handles. A number of innovations were added to the handles to make them easier to hold: ventilation, coiled uprights, asbestos-lined hoods (yes, that asbestos) and detachability are just a few of those features.
Don’t bring the iron to the fire; bring the fire to the iron! (Say that five times fast.) The box iron was designed to hold the heat within its belly, either with charcoal, or with a iron slug, which would be heated by hot coals and then placed in the iron. (And, I imagine, in the case of the charcoal iron, it would give the fabrics a nice, smoky flavor.)
Liquid fuel iron
A technological improvement over charcoal, irons heated by liquid fuel—kerosene, denatured alcohol, and gasoline—produced less smoke, and could be temperature regulated.
This is, of course, in addition to all the other non-electric laundry-pressing gadgets—like mangle boards, polishers, fluters—all collectible in their own right.
Irons were made in seemingly infinite variations in design, not just in the way they were heated but in their overall aesthetic. Irons of all shapes—some with intricate and beautiful designs—make them more than just utilitarian gadgets, they are works of art in their own right. And, in some cases, very valuable.
“In the world of non-electric irons,” Raymond said, “there’s an iron called the Barnes Swan-on-Swan.” It was made, he said, around the Centennial in Philadelphia, PA. It’s an iron shaped like—you guessed it—a swan, with a smaller swan on its back. “There’s only maybe ten of those known,” Raymond said, which, along with the unusual design, makes them highly coveted in collecting circles.
“The Barnes Swan-on-Swan have sold in the $10,000-20,000 range,” Raymond said, making them one of the most expensive American irons. According to the Pressing Iron and Trivet Collectors of America website, another iron, the E. B. Crosby figural Steam Locomotive, sold for $15,000 at auction.
But there are plenty of irons of all shapes for collectors of all wallet-sizes. “Lots of things still sell for $5, $10, $20 or $50, but there are irons that will sell for hundreds of dollars, and in fewer cases, $1,000 or more,” Raymond said. “It’s still a relatively affordable hobby. That’s one of the nice things about it.”
Raymond's own collection focuses on vintage electric irons, which are also wonderful to look at. "They were a great convenience, and they sold gazillions of them in the teens and twenties," he said. After the Great Depression, the industry incorporated aethetics into the items they were marketing. "Irons went from being very unappealing objects to very sleek and streamlined things. And that's how they were selling them—based on their appearance."
At around 250 irons, Raymond said his collection is "small by most iron collectors' standards." It's not unusual to see collections in the thousands. "The thing is, when you start collecting irons, you start to realize there's far more variety than you'd ever imagine," he said. "So, for a collector, that's appealing. To find something you haven't seen before, and to add something to your collection that you didn't know existed."