Inside our collection: The flat iron

In our museum we have many artefacts that our great-grandmothers would have had a real love/hate relationship with. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the laundry with the old copper, mangle, wringers and many irons taking pride of place! Who can remember a time when Monday – all day Monday – was the obligatory washing day?

Washing clothes was tough work and after all the scrubbing, twisting, rinsing, wringing and hanging, those who wanted smooth clothes would then have to face the laborious task of ironing. While ironing is still quite physically demanding today, the quality of our electric irons makes the work much more efficient and there is less risk of damage to our clothes.

In the 1850s irons were typically made of solid iron. The famous Mrs Beeton describes the different irons of the era in her book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management as such:

The irons consist of the common flat-iron, which is of different sizes varying from 4 to 10 inches in length, triangular in form, and from 2.5 to 4.5 inches in width at the broad end; the oval iron, which is used for more delicate articles; and the box-iron, which is hollow, and heated by a red-hot iron inserted in to the box. The Italian iron is a hollow tube, smooth on the outside, and raised on a slender pedestal with a footstalk. Into the hollow cylinder a red-hot iron is pushed, which heats it; and the smooth outside of the latter is used, on which articles such as frills, and plaited articles, are drawn.

Flat irons were also called sad irons or smoothing irons. Metal handles had to be gripped in a pad or thick rag. Some irons had cool wooden handles and in 1870 a detachable handle was patented in the US. This stayed cool while the metal bases were heated and the idea was widely imitated.

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Cool handles stayed even cooler in “asbestos sad irons”. The sad in sad iron (or sadiron) is an old word for solid, and in some contexts this name suggests something bigger and heavier than a flat iron. Goose or tailor’s goose was another iron name, and this came from the goose-neck curve in some handles. In Scotland people spoke of gusing (goosing) irons.

One of the flat irons from our collection
One of the flat irons from our collection

You’d need at least two irons on the go together for an effective system: one in use, and one re-heating. Large households with servants had a special ironing-stove for this purpose. Some were fitted with slots for several irons, and a water-jug on top.

At home, ironing traditional fabrics without the benefit of electricity was a hot, arduous job. Irons had to be kept immaculately clean, sand-papered and polished. They must be kept away from burning fuel, and be regularly but lightly greased to avoid rusting. Beeswax prevented irons sticking to starched cloth. Constant care was needed over temperature. Experience would help decide when the iron was hot enough, but not so hot that it would scorch the cloth.

A well-known test was spitting on the hot metal, but Charles Dickens describes someone with a more genteel technique in The Old Curiosity Shop. She held

“the iron at an alarmingly short distance from her cheek, to test its temperature…”

The flat iron
The flat iron

The last word on how to use these irons must go to Mrs Beeton who has this advice on what a good housewife should expect from her laundry maid.

2393. To be able to iron properly requires much practice and experience. Strict cleanliness with all the ironing utensils must be observed, as, if this is not the case, not the most expert ironer will be able to make her things look clear and free from smears, &c. After wiping down her ironing table, the laundry-maid should place a coarse cloth on it, and over that the ironing-blanket, with her stand and iron-rubber; and having ascertained that her irons are quite clean and of the right heat, she proceeds with her work.

2394. It is a good plan to try the heat of the iron on a coarse cloth or apron before ironing anything fine: there is then no danger of scorching. For ironing fine things, such as collars, cuffs, muslins, and laces, there is nothing so clean and nice to use as the box-iron; the bottom being bright, and never placed near the fire, it is always perfectly clean; it should, however, be kept in a dry place, for fear of its rusting. Gauffering-tongs or irons must be placed in a clear fire for a minute, then withdrawn, wiped with a coarse rubber, and the heat of them tried on a piece of paper, as, unless great care is taken, these will very soon scorch.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management
Pages 2393 – 2394

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One response to “Inside our collection: The flat iron”

  1. Josie Brady Avatar
    Josie Brady

    My grandmother, who died at the age of 95 fifty fears ago, lived in a colonial stone cottage, with an enormous laundry built at the back. As well as a copper and two huon pine laundry tubs it contained a number of mangles of various sizes. After her death all these were taken to the tip, a great pity, as they would have been worth a small fortune now.

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