First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – the iron.
The Iron – Introduction to Item Five
Until relatively recently, the iron more lived up to its name! These two belonged to my great-grandmother (Mam), who you were introduced to in the first blog. Before that, they were her mother’s, and now they’re on display at my parents’ home.
My dad recalls watching Mam heat the irons in the open coal fire and using them to press his grandad’s freshly-laundered shirts. I don’t remember ever seeing this, but she must have been stronger than she looked, because they’re incredibly heavy.
It’s hard to imagine having to do a huge pile of ironing with such unwieldy items, and how hot they must have been. I’m fascinated by early gadgets that were introduced as ‘time-saving’ devices for the modern housewife, which are almost always huge, heavy and slow.
The History of the Iron
Unsurprisingly, it was the innovative Chinese who first used hot metal to press fabric smooth. They stretched out the material and used pans filled with hot coals. In Northern Europe, people smoothed their clothes with wood, stone and glass, even after blacksmiths started making irons in the Middle Ages.
Linen smoothers were made often made from dark glass, and were used in Viking times, although it’s thought that these would not have been heated, and were simply used to press the fabric with the help of a smoothing board. Originally just flat stones, later smoothers came with handles.
The Celtic ‘slickstone’ was similar to a linen press and used from the Middle Ages and were quick and convenient. The rich also had frames to stretch smooth damp cloths, or pressed between rollers. The Romans had introduced the ‘screw press’, and these were also used in wealthy homes.
The ‘sad iron’ is the old term for the irons my great-great-grandmother used, with ‘sad’ coming from the Middle English for ‘solid’. From the 17th century, these were made from slabs of cast iron and equipped with a handle to make the ironing easier (allegedly).
Tailor’s shops had their own stoves where they could heat up several of these cast irons at once. The electric iron was invented and patented in America in 1882, by Henry W. Seeley, although it was a while before these became commonplace in the home.
The Tailor’s Ham, also known as a Dressmaker’s Ham, is sadly not edible. Instead, it is a cushion shaped like a ham, and is inserted into clothes with curves (such as collars and sleeves) so that when pressed, the item will better retain its shape. Should you wish to, you can make your own ham with stiff cloth and something to stuff it with.
The Ironing Board
As time went on, it was necessary to have something a bit more practical to use during ironing. While mangles and presses were still frequently used, by the 1800s housewives were using a dedicated ‘ironing table’ which they covered with a cloth. In 1858, W. Vandenberg and J. Harvey patented a table for pressing trouser legs and shirt sleeves.
In 1892, dressmaker Sarah Boone dramatically improved their version by developing her own ironing board, designed to make smoothing sleeves much easier. Sarah was one of the first black women in the United States to hold a patent.
Effie the Iron
In prototype-form only at the moment, effie is the future of the iron, according to its designers. They promise you’ll never have to iron again, which is good news for me, because I never iron anything.
The effie looks like it’s a smaller version of the press used by dry cleaners, but it actually dries and presses your clothes in only a few minutes. The patent is still pending, with no launch date or price set as yet, but if you hate ironing as much as I do, it might be worth starting to save up for an effie of your own!