Irons: In the Fire And Other Places
by Marjorie Dorfman

Where did the iron come from? Who was the first to think of it and how has it changed over the years? These and other "pressing" questions will be addressed below. Read on, no matter how you may feel about wrinkles.

Although no one can say for sure, it would seem that the first irons were invented around the 12th century as the starching and pressing of ruffled and fluted collars came into vogue. These garments required a specific type of care that could only be rendered by heat and pressure. There were three types of early devices: goeffering irons, fluter irons and sad (heavy) irons. (None of these are any relation to actor, Jeremy, who is and always has been his own individual iron and/or clinical depression or the blues).

Goffering was only for the very wealthy as the process was very complex and required much time and labor. Many of these irons were lavishly decorated and are quite valuable to modern collectors. They are slender rods arranged on a stand that were heated either by a flame or a "heated slug," which was inserted into the device.

Some fluter irons resemble meshed sets of gears that simultaneously crimp and press; others look like a large set of pliers that squeeze the cloth into a given shape and still others may take on the form of a mold in which a top piece is pressed into the bottom to shape the garment. Fluters reflect changing fashion trends and that is why there are so many different kinds. This iron utilized heat either via a hot slug or by direct application to the stove.

Sad irons were the precursor to all modern irons as they evolved into a single all-purpose tool when they weren’t preoccupied with personal depression or movie stars.

The iron as we know it today was in use by the 18th century. Two thousand years of trial and error developed the smooth pointed shape for the ironing of pleats and collars and a notch in the nose to iron around buttons. Weight was also a problem, as a big iron retains heat for a very long time. The problem is, it’s not so easy on human arms, especially those whose owners wished to count on their use for the rest of their lives. Eventually, iron makers realized that while the tool must be heavy enough to compress the cloth, it couldn’t be so heavy that it impairs the ability of the operator to use it.

Up until the 1850s, blacksmiths designed irons. There were some flatirons on the market but they were nothing unusual and their demise was imminent after the 1871 improvement made on the "Sad Iron." Most noteworthy is the fact that the innovator/inventor was a woman, Mrs. Mary Florence Potts (who couldn’t vote but sure could think). Her patent concerned the handle on the sad iron. It improved it by making it removable and allowing the user to have many irons heating on the stove. (Whether or not the expression, "many irons in the fire" came from here is up for grabs.) When the iron cooled, the handle could be removed and attached to a fully heated iron.

Mrs. Potts became somewhat of a celebrity as she advertised broadly and focused on the growing mass market for appliances. The Potts Patent Iron became one of earliest commercial successes in the burgeoning post Civil War economy. The lady herself directed the company and was considered a very able executive. The Potts iron however, did not address the important problems of heat regulation and moisture as these factors were left to the judgment of the user. Ironing remained a dangerous job even though you could do a lot more of it than you could before Mrs. Potts came up with her most innovative idea.

The heating process of the modern iron went through its own particular stage of evolution as well. Regulation demanded that whatever method was employed had to assure the heat of the iron within the minimum time range needed to press the cloth without damaging it. Moist heat was soon discovered to be the best way of assuring this but it had to be applied either from an external source (dampening, press cloth) or from within the iron itself (sprinkling or steam). Wood and coal fires were often used, but ironing required an intermediary source, as the iron itself could not be exposed to the flame. Usually a fire contained by steel or cast iron was most effective, and the iron rested on it. The self-heating iron included variations that used charcoal or kerosene.

The electric iron came into being on June 6, 1882 with a patent issued to a Mr. Henry W. Seely of New York City. The Seely iron weighed about 15 pounds and took a very long time to warm up. It was called the "electric flatiron" and it utilized a carbon arc to create the necessary heat. This was not considered a safe method, however, and in 1892, General Electric and Crompton and Company began marketing hand irons using electrical resistance and they set the standard that has been in use ever since. This iron had an electric heating element in the base and a traditional hand-held metal chunk on the top. It always stayed hot, which was its primary selling point although its cord was a problem. Later irons would have the heating elements built into the hand-held tool.

The first mass consumer electric appliance is considered to be the American Beauty Iron, which was manufactured in Detroit from about 1912 to 1995. Two-piece irons like the Boudoir, provided electric heat and kept the tool clean, which was an advantage over those irons heated over a wooden stove. Probably dating from the time of World War One, this iron is particularly valuable to collectors if it can be found in its original packaging

The technology of bringing steam into the home wasn’t available until the 1930s. Among the very first home steam irons to be successfully marketed was the Steamelectric. It was basically a kettle with a polished flat base. Water boiled inside the kettle to produce the steam, which was emitted through the sole plate. About 1941, the first thermostatically controlled iron, the Steam-O-Matic (model A-300), was introduced. Edward Schreyer created the mechanical design, which has been the basis for all steam irons that followed.

During the early 1950s electric steam irons were introduced and there was a period of intense competition among iron manufacturers that is known as the "Holey Wars." Proctor began the race with an advertising campaign that boasted of 15 steam jets. By the end of the race, some manufacturers featured over 100 steam vents. The industry standard evolved to be about 22 holes spaced evenly around the perimeter of the sole plate.

One of the problems that needed "ironing out" included their weight. This was due to the fact that in these early steam irons a water tank was necessary to contain the steam. Also, these appliances could not be used for "dry" ironing. Getting the water in the tank high enough to assure the proper flow of steam to the evaporation chamber was another problem. Many early steam irons utilized an external water supply that could be removed.

So the next time you look at that iron that is now a fixture in your household, consider that it deserves a new and much overdue respect. It has, after all, evolved exclusively for your convenience. Don’t get too grateful though. Next thing you know your iron will demand a promotion, a raise in pay, a vacation and God knows what other unreasonable fringy benefits!

Happy Iron!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2007