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Trade with China in the 12th century introduced Europeans to the concept of using heat to iron clothes. Once the idea of heat-pressing was embraced in Europe, western fashion became focused on starching and ironing. We’ve all seen pictures of the giant ruffled collars from the Elizabethan Era.
In early America, it was traditional that Monday was washing day and Tuesday was ironing day. Bed sheets were not only laundered, but ironed. We pity the women with lots of kids.
Irons heated by liquid fuel were first invented in the late 1800‘s, eliminating the need to burn a fire all day. Fuels such as gas, kerosene and alcohol were stored in a tank at the back of the iron. It smelled bad and could cause a fire or explode. A pump was used to build up pressure in the fuel tank. Remember the camp stove? Then a lit match was placed underneath the iron to make a flame inside the iron.
The Coleman Company made over 30 different models of irons. They received a patent for the Model 4A Gas Iron on June 25, 1929. It was manufactured until 1948 and sold for $8.95. When filled it weighed about 6 1/2 pounds. It came in cool blue, turquoise, green, tan, and black enamel. The blue Model 4A is the one most often found today. Red and ivory-colored irons were sold only in Canada. While speckled blue irons were sold only in Australia.
In it’s day this was considered an improvement. Fuel irons were lighter in weight and their temperature more even than the heavy flat irons that had to be repeatedly heated on the wood stove or charcoal fire.
Great grandma should have gotten hazard pay!
Are ironed sheets really worth burning down your home?
Ironing was a long and tedious job. Fabrics were 100% cotton or linen and required a hot iron. Sheets, table linens, and shirts all had to be ironed. All the irons had to be heated by the fireside or on a stove before use. The heavier the iron, the longer it held the heat. Women often had two irons; one to work with while the second iron was heating. Ironing was often done on the kitchen table or on a flat board held between two chairs. The stand-alone folding ironing board was developed until the 1860s.
Irons required a lot of maintenance or they rusted. They had to be kept immaculately clean, sanded and polished. Sometimes they were coated with beeswax to keep them from sticking to starched fabric. It was also difficult to know when the iron was heated to the right temperature, too hot and it would scorch the cloth. A well-known test was ‘spitting‘ on the metal. The first irons were basically just a flat bar of cast iron with a metal grip. These were very hot to handle and had to be wrapped in towels to use.
Later, wooden handles were added but these tended to dry and crack with repeated heating. To solve this problem, the tops were made removable so that one iron “slug” could be heating while the other was attached and used. Slug irons tended to be very heavy and were often referred to as “sad” irons –sad being an archaic word meaning heavy.
Larger coal irons were developed with a cavity in which to put several actively burning coals. These irons had a chimney to release the smoke. These remained popular until about 1930. With the availability of gas in the home, similar irons were made which could be attached to the gas line and actually had an open flame inside.
A safer invention was the addition of a small tank which could hold liquid gasoline which was lit to heat the iron. The Coleman Company made models coated in porcelain often in pretty colors.
The electric iron was invented around the beginning of the 20th century. Now temperature could be easily controlled and the fire hazard diminished. However, it took years for rural America to get electrified. The Town of Ogden first came online in 1928.