Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Labor-Saving Devices: The Geneva Fluter

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Susan reporting:

As I've mentioned before, I'm a sucker for a good flea market. Last weekend I was prowling the goodies in Lancaster County, PA, and discovered this antique labor-saving device.

The rocker-like device is called a Geneva Fluter (it proudly says so right there, embossed on the top in raised letters), and many late 19th c. women would probably have recognized it. The fluter is a specialized kind of "sad iron", used to press the fluted ruffles on linen cuffs and collars and other trim. (Here's more about historical

Made from cast iron, the fluter would have been propped before the coals in the hearth to heat. The piece to be ironed would be moistened and laid over the grooved base. Then, with a potholder wrapped around the handle, the heated iron would be rocked over the cloth, and with a hiss of steam, the linen would be perfectly pressed with rows of narrow flutes or pleats.

The weight of the iron and the heat would do most of the work, and compared to pleating and pressing the narrow ruffles individually, this
truly must have been a labor-saving device. Still, there also must have been plenty of room for error and scorching, and the learning curve must have involved considerable trial and error, plus a burn or two.

Made by a foundry in Geneva, IL, that specialized in household goods, the popular hand fluters were manufactured from 1866-1920, and were exported around the world. Once only wealthy ladies with maids and laundresses could have such skillfully ironed linens. Now women of the rising middle class wished to be fashionable, too, and the Geneva fluter took its place in households across America.

My flea-market fluter came with a base that's of a later date (after 1890) that was made in Philadelphia, not Geneva, but the principle's the same. The top plate with the grooves opens, and iron slugs, heated before the hearth like the fluter, would be placed inside to heat the grooves above it. Here's the more elaborate fluter that originally accompanied the base.

Still, mismatched or not, I thought I'd try it out. Not with linen; I'm afraid of that "patina" of old rust and corrosion, nor do I have an open hearth. But I did run a strip of printer paper across the grooves, and viola! Perfectly fluted, ruffled printer paper.


Solanah said...

Wow! Thats amazing!


LaDonna said...

What an awesome device! Bet it's heavy. That's a big chunk of iron.

Finegan Antiques said...

I live a couple of towns away from Geneva and I didn't even know that is where this was made. Cool. I bet the ladies of the day had strong arms. That sucker looks heavy.

Thanks for sharing!


Lauren Lee said...

Thank you for linking to the old post about ironing. Really interesting. I go to flea markets and yard sales all the time and I bet I've walked right past one of these because I didnt' know what it was.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

Fascinating! I wonder if the pleats would be regular enough to be useful for smocking by modern needleworkers? If these fluters are still widely available, it might be worth investigating. Has anyone else ever tried this?

BWS said...

Very surprised we have not bumped into each other in Lancaster County! Perhaps we have...

Radu Prisacaru - UK Internet Marketer said...
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Susan Holloway Scott said...

The iron IS heavy - you certainly wouldn't want to drop it on your toe! No need for the ladies of the past to work out with free weights, that's for sure.

Finegan Antiques, I thought the story of the Geneva foundry was particularly interesting - how they'd begun by making farming implements until they were driven from the business by the more successful McCormick, and turned to making household goods instead. Resourceful businessmen!

BWS - Shupp's Grove and Renninger's? It's entirely possible! *g*

Anonymous said...

Great article! Question-were the pleating irons primarily used to prep material for sewing gathers or part of the garmet that showed while wearing? I can't say that I have noticed any 19th century photos featuring lots of iron made pleats.
Thanks for the info and hopefully, answer.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anonymous - Thank you for going back to the older posts! :)
Since the pleaters turn up primarily in reference to laundering, my guess is that they were used more for existing clothes than for creating new ones (though - modern craft-brain-thinking, it would come in handing for something like smocking that requires regularly pressed pleased.) You're right in that there's not a whole lot of pleating in most 19th c fashion, but the pleater would have been useful with ruffled cuffs and collars and other ladies's and girls's linens.
Hope that helps....

Modemac said...

I found one of these fluters at a huge outdoor antique fair in western Massachusetts today. It had a smaller base than the one in your photo. A YouTube video of it, plus my story of finding it, is here:

Kendall Hall said...

I have a flutter that is dated 1866. Says Heat This on bottom

Marilyn from Defiance, Ohio said...

Just found one of these in my garage....dated 1866 with marking on the bottom that said heat this!also said Geneva flutter

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