Get Rid of Those Nasty Wrinkles
By Jessica Kosinski
Have you ever had a pressing issue to attend to? Most of us have. It’s called ironing. It is a household chore some people dread, but others seem to find it therapeutic. Ironing may not be as popular as it once was, especially due to our busy schedules. However, chances are you own an iron and use it to flatten the wrinkles in your non-permanent press attire as necessary. If you are like some people, you find the extensive history of pressing irons so interesting you may have or be ready to start your own collection of them. Let’s take a peek at that history and some of the best types of pressing irons to collect today.
The Early History of Flattening Linen (Later Called Ironing)
It is impossible to know when the need to smooth items used as clothing was first noticed. Some of the earliest records of the practice came from an archeological dig containing rocks that were “super-heated” and used to soften and smooth animal hides by moving them about, and this was 40,000 years ago!
Ancient Chinese people were among the very first to use hot metal to get out wrinkles. Unlike the common triangular pressing irons of today, Chinese ironing was performed by placing hot coals in pans with handles that were then moved across the surface of the cloth as the heat to be transferred to the smooth surface on the bottom of the pans. This method has been proven to have been practiced at least 1,000 years ago.
In medieval Europe, it was common practice to spread fabrics over smoothing boards. The fabrics were then flattened using smoothers made of glass. Those smoothers went by many names, including slickenstones, sleekstones and slickstones. Later versions had handles. They also became more decorative, and other materials were sometimes used to make them, including wood and marble. They are easily recognizable in modern auction houses and antique shops today by their mushroom-like shapes.
Methods for flattening wrinkles in fabrics continued to evolve in Europe throughout the years. One popular technique was the use of an object called a mangle board and a rolling pin. That idea evolved into a box mangle, which consisted of stones in a box with rollers underneath. Fabric was passed through the rollers to be pressed.
Pressing irons as we know them today are typically triangular with handles and electric cords. Most of them are steam irons. The heat and humidity from the steam they produce flattens wrinkles in clothing or linens as we iron them. However, the earliest pressing irons were forged by blacksmiths. They were made entirely from metal. Those metal irons also had metal handles. Fires were used to heat the irons, creating usage problems due to the handles also heating up.
An early method of handling a forged pressing iron was to wrap the handle in a rag during use, similar to how we now use oven mitts to remove hot food from ovens. Eventually that problem led to new innovations in pressing iron designs. For example, in 1870, an iron with a removable handle was patented. This allowed the iron to be heated without the handle getting hot. Another innovation was the use of wood to make handles that stayed cool.
Pressing irons for home use were often referred to as sad irons (sadirons). The term “sad” at the time meant “solid” or “heavy” and is believed to have referred to the weight of the irons. Early use of such irons in homes was difficult. In most cases, each household required at least two irons. The irons were not electrified, so they did not stay hot indefinitely. Having two meant one could be heating while the other was in use. Sad irons also had to be cleaned and greased regularly to prevent rust and keep linens from getting dirty when pressed.
As pressing irons became more elaborate, some were produced with elaborate curved handles. As a result, an iron was sometimes called a goose. The term primarily referred to an iron used by a professional tailor. In Scotland the term was widely used but slightly adapted to “gusing.”
Pressing irons gained another new nickname—flatirons, or flat irons—in the 1800s. In 1882, in New York City, Henry W. Seely patented the first electric flatiron. By the 1950s, a new innovation, the steam iron, gained popularity. Steam irons have remained household favorites to this day. Over the years, they have been produced in many forms by top companies like Philips and Black and Decker.
The biggest obstacle when collecting pressing irons is space. For example, in 2013 a British gentleman with a collection of irons was interviewed by the Daily Mail. He had over 800 irons and was pictured in that publication standing in a room surrounded by them. They were displayed on shelves from floor to ceiling.
If you have the space, you can find pressing irons of all ages and in all price ranges fairly easily. Antique shop searching, online shopping, and flea market fishing are all great ways to find pressing irons, if your budget is a concern. If you are looking for high-end irons, the internet or specialized auctions are often the best sources. For example, the Mary Balestri iron collection was auctioned off in Pittsburgh, PA in August, 2018 with prices ranging from $20 to $1,520.