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Mom's old Iron - Reflection of Technology

Updated on March 17, 2011

The Development of Irons.

The lowly pressing iron, like no other household utensil throughout history, has brought the latest advances of technology to the hands of everyday people. All the latest developments of metals, materials, improved fuels, science, and technology were incorporated into the iron to ease the drudgery of 'ironing day'. Before the birth of Human Factors Engineering (Ergonomics) and Industrial Design, constant effort was made to make the iron functional, effective and beautiful; or pleasing to hold, to use and to look at.

The conflicting needs of weight and heat on one hand, and muscle strain and comfort on the other, made for many changes in the design, the materials and the different fuels as they were discovered and developed. The opinions of women, the main users, were sought in the design of new models, and many improvements were created directly by women.

Ironing the Oriental Way

Korean women ironing with wooden sticks circa 1910
Korean women ironing with wooden sticks circa 1910 | Source

Irons in History

Prehistoric 'ages' are characterized by the materials used to fashion tools: stone-age flint knives and axes, bronze-age swords, iron-age spears. The needs were various, but usually had to do with hunting animals for food and clothing.

Later on, as man progressed out of furs and skins into woven fabrics for clothes and the immediate needs of survival gave way to community living and social hierarchy, a new need arose: neatness! Washing fabrics in water tends to make them wrinkle up in the same way hair, human and animal, curls when wet. Stretching and pressing while drying helped return the garments to their original shape, but pressing and heat together seemed to work the best.

As patterns of social hierarchy and military dominance developed, potential leaders learned that 'scruffy' did not get them any points, and indeed the more the lower classes improved their 'looks', the more the ones on top had to outshine them, and the search was on for better ways to make clothes neater and crisper.

The Romans used heated metal rods to form the folds of their robes, and large wooden presses to flatten the fabric. The Vikings smoothed their tunics with smooth stones and glass smoothers shaped like upside-down mushrooms, held by the stalk. This sort of tool was used for centuries in Europe and the British Isles. Later, hunks of iron were forged into flat, pointed 'irons' by blacksmiths as early as the 14th century. Placed in, or close to a fire until hot, they were removed by their loop handles, using a padded cloth, and placed on a damp sheet that covered the garment. Heat, pressure and moisture caused the fabric to take a 'set' that lasted for days. The damp sheet also protected the garment from scorching and from the soot and ashes clinging to the iron. Another way to avoid the soot and ashes was to place hot coals, or charcoal in the body of the iron, similar to the Asian pans of previous centuries. (See Photo above.) Although in use by the 1400's, charcoal irons were hand-made and used mostly by the very rich or their ironing maids.

The Industrial Revolution, starting in the 1700's, brought on an explosion of manufacturing in the cloth and iron trades. Cheaper cloth meant that many more people could afford more clothes, and would need more irons to keep them neat. The development of Cast Iron during the 1800's provided a low cost way to manufacture a heavy, durable iron for pressing clothes, and a clean and safe stove top on which to heat it up. No more soot and ashes on the clothes!

Continuing through the mid 1800's and into the early 1900s, many new types of irons were developed, each with it's own advantages and limitations. This was the grand period of iron development, leaving the electric iron to come along a few years later.

Early Eropean Irons

Blacksmith- forged irons of the 18th Century
Blacksmith- forged irons of the 18th Century | Source

Sad, very sad!

Early 'Sad' irons. (Rt)Pott's style with removable handle.
Early 'Sad' irons. (Rt)Pott's style with removable handle. | Source

Too Hot to Hold! or 'Mary Potts has an idea.

Early Cast Iron models, called 'Sad Irons', (where "sad" was a term that meant heavy or solid), had the same drawback as forged irons - the handles got hot, even if the manufacturers got clever and poured the handles with lots of holes for cooling air.

After struggling with pads and padded gloves, Mary Potts, of Ottumwa, Ohio had an idea: - "What if I could separate the body from the handle? Then I could heat up the body on the stove while I ironed with another body. When the iron in my hand cooled down and the iron on the stove was now hot, I could unhook and leave the cold iron on the stove and pick up the hot one and continue ironing". She patented her idea in 1871 and changed the 'Sad Iron' world for ever. Many different versions of the same separation idea flooded the market for many years after. At the height of Sad Iron production one manufacturer, Dover, was machining 4000 bases per day!

Box (Slug) Irons

(L) Early British , with lift gate. (C) Brass with swinging gate. (R) European 'Ox Tongue' with slug
(L) Early British , with lift gate. (C) Brass with swinging gate. (R) European 'Ox Tongue' with slug | Source

Dont put the iron in the heat, put the heat in the iron - Duh!

An early improvement to eliminate the soot and ashes problem was the 'Box iron' developed by the Dutch in the 17th century, where the hollow body of the iron (usually made of brass) contained a 'slug' of real iron plucked from the fire with tongues and dropped into the iron through a trap door in the rear. Scorching was a problem right after the slug was introduced if the floor of the iron was thin, which they tended to be.

Another form of iron with contained heat was the charcoal iron which was popular from the late 1800's through 1930s in rural areas. In early versions red-hot coals were placed in the iron and kept burning with small bellows and air vents that could be adjusted. The smoke exited through funnels that were turned away from the user. Later versions burned charcoal that was lighted in the iron and allowed to burn to a glowing heat. Special clean-burning fuels were marketed by the iron manufacturers for use in their irons. American models became quite sophisticated during the early 1900s, nickel plated, with dual funnels and multiple swinging vent doors.

Coal and charcoal irons

(L) Coal Iron with funnel. (C)Dainty Charcoal iron showing internal grate. (R) Iron from India, still used by street "Iron Wallas'.
(L) Coal Iron with funnel. (C)Dainty Charcoal iron showing internal grate. (R) Iron from India, still used by street "Iron Wallas'. | Source

"It's the spirit that keeps it going"

Oil and ethanol fueled lamps and stoves, using wicks, date back centuries. Once the idea of putting the heat inside the iron caught on, it was a small step to look to other fuels for heating. The disadvantage of charcoal and other solid fuel irons was the smoke and the remaining ashes that had to be cleaned out. Oil, alcohol burned much cleaner and left no residue. Whale oil was prized for its clean flame, and farmers prior to the Civil War distilled their extra grain into Alcohol for sale to light lamps and stoves. Small tanks for the oil or alcohol were added to the irons and wicks placed in the body to heat the iron.

The discovery of petroleum oil and the refining process that developed in the late 1800's produced a cheap substitute called 'coal oil' or Kerosene that could be used in the same stoves and irons. Gasoline came along later, which burned with a hotter flame. Pressurizing the fuel in the tank  with an air pump provided improved control of the flame and greater economy. The Coleman Company of Kansas produced a popular line of irons having a porcelain coated body in bright colors, with a shiny chrome plated tank, in contrast to the usual black or Nickel plated competitors.

Alcohol and Kerosene Irons

(L) Colman 'White Gas' or Kerosene Iron with pump. (R) Early Alcohol or Spirit iron.
(L) Colman 'White Gas' or Kerosene Iron with pump. (R) Early Alcohol or Spirit iron. | Source

It's a gas Man!

Gas made from coal has been around since before 1800, and natural gas even earlier. First used for street lighting in the 1850’s, most large cities and towns, both in the US and Europe boasted gas pipes in every house to provide light. In 1885, Robert Bunsen developed a way to mix air with the gas to produce a hotter flame and less smoke. This paved the way for gas stoves, boilers and even irons.

A rubber tube or hose fed gas to the iron from a tap in the wall, or from the ceiling fixture. Gas irons can be identified by a longish pipe coming out of the rear of the iron and pointing up at an angle. This placement would keep the hose out of the way of the user, if she was right-handed of course.  A later improvement allowed the pipe to be rotated for ‘lefties’.

Some gas irons were hollow and heated on a stand where the flame entered the rear for heating. When the iron cooled down, it was returned to the stand or swapped for a fresh hot one.

Gas Irons, Old and Sorta New.

(L) early Coal gas iron. (R) British Natural Gas iron from 1950's
(L) early Coal gas iron. (R) British Natural Gas iron from 1950's | Source

(Nearly) Every House had one!

The last "new' fuel to be harnessed for irons was electricity. The first public power generator, the Pearl Street Station in New York City, was installed by Thomas Edison in 1882. It produced Direct Current to run 5,000 of his carbon filament lights in 125 houses. The same year saw Henry W. Seely patent an electric iron permanently connected by two flexible wires from a fixture on the wall. It was very heavy (15 lbs) and took a long time to heat up. He had doubts about the practicality and safety of the wires, so in 1883 he patented a similar iron that was heated on an electric plate, and had no wires. Neither product was ever produced. At that point in time, carbon was used to produce the heat, probably influenced by Edison's use of Carbon which heated up to a bright light because of its resistance to the flow of electric current.

Electrons flow easily through metals that have atoms with loosely-held electrons, such as copper. Other metals, like iron, require energy to dislodge electrons, and that energy results in heat. These metals are said to have a 'resistance' to electron flow, and wire designed to heat up is called 'resistance wire' Early electric irons used mainly iron alloy wire which did not bend very well, rusted, and frequently burned out. Irons were designed with elements that could be easily replaced by the customer. It was 1903 before a corrosion-resistant heating wire, called "nichrome" became available and irons became more dependable.

In 1903, a meter reader working for the Ontario (California) Power Company, Earl H. Richardson was building his own brand of electric irons, selling door to door and to friends. He was convinced of the future of his product, but faced a major marketing problem. True to 'turn of the century' social mores, Monday was 'washing day' and Tuesday was 'ironing day’. All the housewives followed those rules, so Tuesday would be his day to demonstrate the superiority of electric irons - lighter weight, cleaner, more efficient, etc. The hitch was that electric lighting was the only game in town and power companies only turned on the juice at night!

He finally convinced Ontario Power to supply power all day Tuesdays and his sales grew. Complaints grew also, that his irons were too hot in the center. His wife showed him how more heat was needed at the point of the iron for working along seams and around button holes. He redesigned the winding of his element to put more heat at the point and called the iron the 'Hotpoint'.

From then on, his business grew and his company was eventually bought by General Electric, who kept the trademark and developed it into one of the world’s most memorable.

Placing electric current in a hand-held device was a whole new safety concern.  Burns from alcohol, Gasoline and gas flame, even hot coals, were  hazards commonly faced by housewives; death by electricity was something else.   Guiding electrons around in an iron so they could do their job (generate heat) and not go astray (shock the user) required conductors, usually copper wire or terminals, and insulators, at that time usually ceramic, mica, hard rubber, asbestos and wood.  There were no plastics (today's insulators) at that time.  Richardson's irons, like all those of its day had no plastics. It was 1927 before the first plastic (Bakalite) was used for the thumb button on GE irons.

First of Many

(L)  Original Hot Point iron. Note wide band of exposed Asbestos. (R) Early GE Hotpoint with nickel plated finish and Bakalite thumb button.
(L) Original Hot Point iron. Note wide band of exposed Asbestos. (R) Early GE Hotpoint with nickel plated finish and Bakalite thumb button. | Source


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      8 years ago

      Working on an archaeology assignment and ran across this article. It was very helpful and interesting. Thanks!


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