IRONS - IRONS - IRONS!

So you say you collect….what?  Pressing Irons!
How can that be?  – How many are there?
Hundreds?  Thousands?  Even more!  Educate me please.

The Evolution of the Pressing Iron

By: Lani Czyzewski

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, October 2006


Crownall-English about the late 1800's


Sad Iron from the Ober Brothers Manufacturing Company - about 1900

Chinese Pan Iron from 1800-1850

Crank Fluter - patented in 1880

Smoothing Board - early 1800's

Alcohol iron - German patent 1897

The people of China began using long-handled brass pans filled with charcoal over one thousand years ago to press their silk.  Since that time, a wide variety of irons have been developed in the attempt to find a solution to the problem of how to heat an iron efficiently -- and protect both the user and the cloth against burns.  Smoothing Stones have been around since the 8th and 9th century and are known as the earliest western ironing devices, looking somewhat like large mushrooms. 

“Necessity is the mother of invention” rings true when it comes to ironing.  The ruff collar became popular in mid-1500 in Spain and France.  Development was begun using starched cloth and a heated Goffering Iron.  The decorated ruff was labor intensive and expensive so a practical use for making pleats was being sought.   

In the 1600’s, 1700’s and 1800’s Linen Presses were widely used.  The smoothing board was popular in Scandinavian Countries as early as the 1600’s.  Women who took in washing hung the board outside their home with their names and the types of washing they did. 

The box iron was made first by the Danes in the late 1600’s and had many advantages.  This pressing iron had a cavity with a lug that held heat longer than most irons.  The lug, with its ability to be removed, kept the pressing surface clean. 

The Sad Iron was developed beginning in the 1800’s.  The most common early irons were cast in one piece and weighed from five to seven pounds... many irons used by tailors and commercial cleaners often weighed as much as 20 pounds!  Found abundantly in every country home, they were heated on cast iron stoves.  They are commonly called "flat" or "sad" irons.  "Sad" is an archaic word meaning "dense" or "heavy."

The composition varied over the years, from wood (without heat), iron, porcelain, to Bakelite or agate coating and soapstone.  Much of the development centered around reducing the heat on the handle, which led to a revolutionary invention by Mary Potts -- removable handles.  Mary Potts received a series of patents for variations on her iron where the body of the iron was cast hollow and later filled with material that was a non-conductor of heat, such as plaster of Paris, cement, or clay.  Mrs. Potts claimed in her patent that this material held the heat longer so that more garments could be ironed without reheating the iron.  The removable handle made it possible to have other irons heating while one was being used. 

There were many different innovations to this necessary household item.  One iron used a shelf where burning charcoal, or a bar of red-hot iron called a "slug," was placed.  Another had an interior compartment where coals burned to ashes before fresh coals were added.  These irons had chimneys that would reach a height of three inches or more, so the fumes and smoke wouldn't dirty the clean clothes. 

The basic sad iron has some examples of fascinating attempts to keep the hand cool.  Handles were slotted and coiled or ventilation and air flow.  These are rare to find today.  Combination irons, capable of doing more than one type of ironing job, reflect the nineteenth century's fascination with inventions and gadgets.  They are found as sad/fluters and charcoal/fluters.  

For ironing ruffles, the fluter had, for the most part, replaced the Goffering Iron by the 1860’s.  Both crank and hand fluters were heated by rods or rectangular lugs.  To save money in the home, functions were combined to pleat and polish in one unit.  There are nearly as many different types of fluters as there are pressing irons.   

Many foundries produced these irons.  One of the largest was the Ober Brothers foundry in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.  Founded in 1873, they became a household name -- their catalogs were printed in four languages and they shipped merchandise all over the world.   

Throughout the centuries many different sources of heat for ironing were used, including charcoal, alcohol, kerosene, gas – and finally electricity.  However, even with the advent of electricity, not all houses were wired and some rural areas still used charcoal, gas, or sad irons.

Although lacking elegance and refinement, old-fashioned irons have warmth of character making them popular collectibles.  

By David Freeze, Lutz, FL
David and his wife Chris have a consignment area at Lani’s Antiques & Collectibles in Temple Terrace, Florida.  All the irons shown in the photographs are part of Dave’s personal collection.


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