09 April 2014

A Pressing Engagement

Last Saturday my DAR chapter had a wonderful program given by one of our own chapter members.  She brought to the meeting a small portion of her antique pressing iron collection.  She had been all over the world in her earlier traveling days and always seemed to find an iron where ever she went!

I am here to tell you that our female ancestors were not wussies.  Those irons weigh on average 5 to 9 pounds each.  Can you imagine what it must have been like for them?

For most households, one entire day (usually Monday) was devoted just to do the washing.  Water was heated in large copper pots and clothes were boiled.  Those heavily stained were rubbed with soap and scrubbed on a washboard.  After rinsing the clothes in yet another large pot of boiling water, they were fed through a hand cranked wringer then either spread on bushes or hung on a line to dry.

Although wash wringers had become common in middle class households, they were relatively easy to manufacture, and competition was stiff. The much-advertised Universal Clothes Wringer, marketed by Julius Ives & Company in New York City, outsold the one manufactured by Gunn, Amidon & Co. nearly two-to-one.   Gunn, Amison & Co. came up with a new and improved version.  Some advertising genius had the idea to place "odes to the new wringer" in newspapers all over the country.  Here are a few examples:

"Lady, fair lady, O pray have you seen 
Gunn, Amidon Co.’s Wringing Machine? 
For beauty, utility, elegance, blend 
In this gem of perfection your helper and friend."

"The rich and the poor, may every one try it, 
For the pitiful sum of eight-fifty will buy it, 
When you’ve used it yourself for many long years, 
You can leave it your daughters, the charming young dears."

Anyway, back to irons.  Like the washing, an entire day (usually Tuesday) was also devoted to ironing.  Most households used heavy flat irons, forged by the local blacksmith.  Also referred to  as "sad" irons, these flat irons are often  shaped like a triangular to make it easier to iron around buttons. These were heated on an open fire or a stove, and the metal handles had to be grasped with a thick potholder.

In 1870, a woman by the name of Mary Florence Potts, in Ottumwa, Iowa, was awarded a patent for a sad iron with that came to a point on both ends, which allowed women to iron in either direction.

Just a year later, she introduced the biggest change ever in the history of ironing:  a sad iron with a detachable, wooden handle. They were sold in sets of three irons and one handle, the idea being that two irons could be heating on the stove while one was in use.  

Here are a few books that I enjoyed to learn more about this subject:

Feminine Ingenuity: How Women Inventors Changed America
 By Anne Macdonald

Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office
 By Ellen Lupton

The Mrs. Potts' Sad Iron Collector's Guide
By Eric Marshall 


  1. We have one antique iron, though I don't remember where it came from. It's heavy! I can't imagine using that iron all day long!! Yes, I'm thankful for modern conveniences!

  2. I have 2 sad irons that were my grandmother's. They sit on top of my fridge like bookends but instead of books they hold paper napkins.

    In the 1950s Grandma won an electric iron for being the "nth" customer at a local grocery store, She almost always had her groceries delivered as Grandpa was bedfast & she didn't like to leave him alone. When the delivery boy showed up with the electric iron for her she told him she didn't need any "new fangled" iron and to take it back. Her 2 regular irons worked just fine!

  3. What a fantastic collection of antique irons! We certainly have it so much easier than our ancestors did, that's for sure.

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2014/04/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-april-11.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!