From the The Chronicle Volume XIV, No. 4, December 1961
by Charlotte Woodhull
Judging from accounts of the home life of our early ancestors, they were not particularly fastidious about laundering. Their garments, furthermore, were not usually made of washable materials. Considering the scarcity of implements for the job and the crudeness of those available, it is small wonder that laundering was not the important weekly household chore it is today. When washing was necessary, it was done in the streams and the clothing was beaten on boards or stones. Records of the early 16th Century mention “Pressing Machines.”
One of the earliest contrivances was the “Box Mangle.” It consisted, literally, of a box filled with stones and worked by a cranked handle. Articles to be pressed were wound round loose wooden rollers and over these the box ran backwards and forwards. This sort of pressing was sufficient for sheets or blankets only. “Mangling Boards” were in use prior to any mechanical contrivance. As with the “Box Mangle,” clothes were wound round a single small roller, like a rolling pin, and smoothed with a piece of wood shaped like a wide spatula with a handle at one end (Figure 1). We find many Dutch examples of these “Smoothing Boards.” Some are beautifully carved with hearts and arrows and were given as love tokens to prospective brides. It is said that at Ephrata, Pennsylvania in the Old Bissell Community of Seventh Day Baptists, the fresh and precious linen used in “Love Feasts” and other religious services was always “smoothed” but never “ironed.”
With the introduction of starch into England in the middle of the 16th century, all sorts of irons came into use. In the early 17th century a special implement was used for the ruffles, flounces and frills which were the fashion of the times. It was called a “Goffering Iron” or a “Tally Iron,” (Figure 2) “Tally” being a corruption of Italian after the country from which it was introduced. These Goffering Irons were finger-like tubes, ranging from one-quarter inch to one and one-half inches in diameter, mounted on heavy bases and were heated by inserting a red hot bar of iron similar to a poker. The starched linen was grasped in both hands and pressed over the hot barrel which made a semi-circular crimp. Often two or more tubes of different sizes were mounted on the base. One type of goffering iron had closed tubes heated in the center by charcoal (Figure 3). For general smoothing, there was the Box Iron – the fore-runner of the familiar Flat Iron. It was heated in the same manner as the Tally Iron – by inserting an iron heater through a door at the wide end (Figure 4). Some of these were designed to be heated by charcoal.
Between the 16th and the 19th centuries, most of the requisites for use in the home, as well as in the field, were made in the villages, so it was natural that the earliest flat irons were made on the blacksmith’s forge. In common with most artisans of the past, the smithy took pride in his work and was a bit of an artist and a designer in his own field. Therefore, we find a great variety of handles on old irons – some quite decorative, with elaborate curls or twists where the handle is attached to the base. Some handles are high to keep them from getting too hot – some have shields to protect the hand of the user. They also vary in size and thickness. Sad irons are larger and thicker than flat irons and were used for smoothing heavy fabrics. The tailor’s smoothing iron is called a “goose” – probably because its handle resembles the neck of a goose. (Incidentally, the plural of this word “goose” is “gooses.”) Although gradually standardized in size and weight, the flat iron, together with the sad iron and the tailor’s goose, continued in use until the advent of the electric iron.
When there seemed to be no possible way to improve the flat iron itself, new methods of heating the iron were devised. The Shakers built stoves with pyramidal sides against which many irons could be placed and heated simultaneously. When flat irons were heated on top of the kitchen stove, it was important to conserve the space directly over the fire. A cone of iron, made to fit into the opening of one stove lid, could heat your irons and still leave room on the top of the stove for other utensils (Figure 5). Another unique heating gadget is a tray, the exact size to fit into the stove top opening when two lids and the divider were removed. The tray is divided into three sections with separate hinged covers to enclose the base of the irons only. Thus the handles were shielded somewhat from the intense heat of the stove (Figure 6).
By the middle of the 19th Century, there were patents galore. To mention a few – In 1852, a charcoal iron was patented by C. Bless and R. Drake. It is quite high with a curved funnel at the front. Air was admitted through a vent at the back of the iron. On this vent is an oval impression of what is probably the likeness of Hephaestus – the Greek god of metal working (Figure 7). Hephaestus is represented as heavily built and middle-aged with a beard and long hair, usually holding a hammer or tongs.
The “Geneva, Illinois Hand-fluter” (Figure 8), patented in 1860, was a great improvement over the old goffering iron. This fluter consisted of a heavy block of iron with a corrugated surface which could be heated in the fire. The material to be fluted was placed on the block and a rocker-shaped iron, also corrugated, with a wooden handle, was pressed over it. Another interesting fluter is shaped like a flat iron. The handle is attached to a corrugater lid hinged at the front of the iron (Figure 9).
A rather elaborate fluting iron, “The Original Knox,” patented in 1870 (Figure 10), has corrugated rollers, heated like the old goffering irons by inserting hot iron rods inside the rollers. The rollers are made on a heavy stand which could be fastened to a table and turned by a handle. The stand is prettily decorated and has a photograph of “Susan A. Knox” framed and set in the base.
A flat iron, with a handle that could be swung back on a hinge when the iron was heating, was patented by P. W. Weides of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1870. For ironing stiffly starched shirts and collars, a small oval “polishing” iron was made and patented by M. Maloney of Troy, New York, in I 876. The face of these irons are etched in various patterns to keep them from sticking to the starched surfaces.
The “Akron Lamp Mfg. Co.” put “The Diamond” on the market. It burned oil, had a font at the back of the iron with a control to regulate the flame (Figure 11).
By the latter part of the 19th Century, gas irons were in general use in cities and were made in various sizes and weights. This era opened up the country for travel and there developed the need for a small iron which could be carried in one’s luggage. One unique example was patented in 1888 by James A. Sharp of New York and James D. Suther of Brooklyn (Figure 12). It measures 4-1/4 inches in length, with a wooden handle. On top of the heating surface of the iron is a funnel-like opening and directly above this opening a small hole through the handle. The iron could be placed, handle side down, over any regular gas jet and heated to the desired temperature, lifted off and put to use.
Since time began, man has aspired to build that proverbial “better mouse-trap” and so it is with the household iron. Improvements are still being made and new patents applied for.
All black and white irons pictured are from the author’s collection.