In our age of t-shirts and jeans and general acceptance of being comfortably rumpled rather than starched and pressed, ironing is fast becoming another lost art on the home-front (though both of us NHG do recall ironing pillow-cases as girls, oh, in the last century.) But two hundred years ago, ironing was considered essential: how else to keep those gentleman's shirts crisp, or the ruffles on a lady's shift or cap charmingly perky instead of limp as old lettuce?
In most genteel households, ironing fell to the laundress. Not only would she be responsible for pressing the family's personal linens, but also tablecloths, napkins, and bed linens, too. Often the mistress's finest linen would be ironed by her lady's maid, or even the housekeeper –
whoever could be most trusted with a hot iron.
Two kinds of irons were in common use in the 18th-19th centuries. Shown at right are flat-irons or sad-irons (the 'sad' part comes not from a weary laundress, but from an archaic word for solid.) These were in fact solid pieces of cast iron that were propped before the hearth to heat. Considerable experience was required to judge the temperature and to keep the face of the iron free of cinders and soot. Two irons at a time were recommended: one to use, and a second to be heating.
Every laundress had her own method for judging an iron's proper temperature, but the most common was spitting on the iron's heated face to see how fast the spit would sizzle away. Accidentally scorching or burning a hole in a costly garment or large linen was grounds enough for dismissal, and most housekeeping books of the time contain all sorts of cautionary suggestions.
Slightly less hazardous were box-irons, like the one being demonstrated above left by the tailor in Colonial Williamsburg. These irons were wedge-shaped boxes with a sliding-door on the back. A fitted iron insert, called a slug, would be heated and slipped inside. The advantages were that the heat would be more evenly distributed, the face of the iron could remain spotlessly clean, and several slugs could be kept heating at once to insure a near-constant source of heat. An average box-iron weighed about four pounds; the weight made ironing easier, and helped press the cloth with less muscle. Larger box-irons could hold live coals inside, and were called charcoal-irons.
In addition, there were specialized irons for certain tasks. Ruffles and pleats required custom-shaped irons with a bewildering array of names – crimping, goffering, fluting, ruching, qulling, and puff irons – that described the shape they were intended to create. Tailors and mantua-makers had their own irons, too. At left are the long, eight-pound tailor's irons, used to press open seams. These were called geese, not only because of their long handles like a goose's neck, but also because of the hissing sound that a hot iron made when pressed onto dampened cloth.
Check out this site for more about crimping and pressing ruffles and pleats. I also reccommend The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman, written by an upper-class 18th c. English lady as a guide for her servants and what she expected of them, day by day. It's one of my favorite sources for domestic history: very informative, but also exhausting.