Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pressing Matters: Yes, Ironing

Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Susan reports:

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.


Ingrid said...

Interesting post. I hate ironing! I always maintain that body heat will smooth out the wrinkles as you wear a blouse. Most people are not totally convinced by this. I wonder why.
An important aid to getting your ironing really perfect was starch. I've seen caps that stand up by themselves, and starch was also what gave men perfectly smooth shirt fronts. A friend of my mother's told me once how my uncles would rub together their clean shirts before they put them on. And that after their sisters had ironed them so beautifully. 'It made my heart bleed', she said.

Miss Kirsten said...

Interesting! But it makes me grateful we don't have to iron anymore!

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

'morning, NHGs and friends! Unfortunately, I do know how to iron, which, of course, is different from "pressing," doncha know. My oldest bro, a career Navy guy, taught me all the tricks for pressing creases, as well as a trick w/the board when ironing shirts. sometimes it's relaxing to iron. but i don't seek it.

I think 'girl w/pearl earring' was the first novel that got me thinkin' on drudgery of old-school ironing. This post rocks.

Rowenna said...

Love the photos! Those "geese" make such good sense--seems like they would be much easier to maneuver through new seams than wedge-shaped irons.

I can see why people sent their laundry out if they could afford to--what a chore!

Vanessa Kelly said...

This is just a fascinating topic! I'm always amazed at the care and skill it took to perform tasks that seem to be just household drudgery. Not that these tasks weren't boring or hard, just that they took way more skill than we usually imagine.

I remember my mother setting aside one day a week to iron my dad's shirts, linens, etc... She would dampen everything the evening before and iron the next day. It pretty much took her all day, too.

Hellie Sinclair said...

I love this blog. And I love my friend who pointed me in the direction of this blog because hanging out with other people who love history as much or perhaps even more than I do is like going back to my best and happiest years of college. *sighs*

I'm also glad I don't have to iron unless I'm sewing something.

(I really love the blogs that feature stuff about Colonial Williamsburg. I only got to spend one day there, but it's one of those places I know I could spend the next ten years there and still not learn everything there is to know.)

Victoria Janssen said...

Thanks for yet more great links!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Huh, who would have guessed that ironing would be so interesting to y'all? *g* I have to admit that I CAN do it, but I don't enjoy it. It always seems like I'd get to that last sleeve, and somehow manage to crumple and press the part I'd already done, grrr...

But my mother, too, has always been a big-time ironer. The over-night dampening, a sheet on the floor beneath the board to catch the spray starch, the whole routine. She's 86 and almost blind, but she still irons my father's shirts AND his handkerchiefs, which just totally stuns me.

Welcome and thanks to all you new post-ers, too!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Jill said...

How I wish I could find a cheap modern iron to my liking. I would love to wear crisply ironed clothes. I think it would put a skip in my step.

nightsmusic said...

We had a wringer washer and a clothesline when I was growing up. In fact, my mother didn't switch over to an automatic washing machine until 1982! Because I bought it for her, I couldn't stand seeing her slave anymore.

Anyway...I learned how to iron first, from my gran using a box iron, then from my mother with an electric one (thank goodness she jumped on that one!) We'd use a pop bottle with a cork that had a perforated top like a salt shaker to dampen our clothes.

I had to iron everything. Shirts, t-shirts, pillowcases, sheets, underwear, socks, tablecloths...if it got washed and hung to dry, it got ironed.

I was never so glad to see permanent press in my life! :)

I'll have to pick up a copy of the housekeeping book you have. I do like Mrs. Beeton's, though it's a bit more 'modern.'

I'm glad of one thing though. There isn't a thing made, ruffle, pleat, even creases, that I can't do now. And do well. Now, if only my girls would want to learn...

Lyn S said...

My mother-in-law did not have electricity until she was 13 in 1939. She lived in W. Pennsylvania and the lines didn't run to the farms. She told me about using an iron they kept on the stove. She alternated two. My mom loves to iron. She irons her sheets. I do not have the ironing gene at all. Thank goodness for dry cleaners.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

Can't imagine spitting on the iron to tell if it's ready to use! I have one of those antique flat irons. It's not as old as the ones in your picture, but it has raised flowers cast into the top of the iron. I use it for a doorstop.

LorettaChase said...

I think an iron makes a great doorstop. Some people say ironing relaxes them. They are not me. Just more proof that I would not have done well in times past unless I'd been a very wealthy woman. Yet I do see a value in having different shapes of irons. Maybe if we bought irons in sets, they'd be more fun. Or maybe not.

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