EARLY HOUSE WORK – IRON ON TUESDAY
For many of the early settlers, each day had its own proper chores, especially for the women.
Clothes that were wrinkled needed to be ironed. Ironing traditional fabrics without the benefit of electricity was a hot, arduous job. Irons had to be kept immaculately clean, sand-papered and polished. They must be kept away from burning fuel, and be regularly but lightly greased to avoid rusting. Beeswax prevented irons sticking to starched cloth. Constant care was needed over temperature. Experience would help decide when the iron was hot enough, but not so hot that it would scorch the cloth.
The iron was set on the stove to heat. Then the iron was tested to see if it was hot enough. If it sizzled when touched with a wet finger, the iron was ready to use. Another flat iron was heated on the stove while one was being used. As soon as the iron cooled it was exchanged for a hot one off the stove.
From Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie, “On Tuesday, Ma would iron the finer clothes. First she would starch them. Starch was made by boiling grated potatoes. The top was skimmed off until the starch that was left settled to the bottom of the pot. This was gathered, dried, and mixed with water to form a paste. One end of Ma’s ironing board would lie on the table and the other on the bedstead, which Pa had made high on purpose. An iron was heated over a fire or stove. The clothing or material to be ironed was spread out, sprinkled with water, and then the heated iron was used to iron it.”
Flat irons were also called sad irons or smoothing irons. The hot metal handles had to be gripped in a pad or thick rag. Some irons had cool wooden handles and in 1870 a detachable handle was patented in the US. This stayed cool while the metal bases were heated and the idea was widely imitated. Cool handles stayed even cooler in “asbestos sad irons“. The sad in sad iron (or sadiron) is an old word for solid. Goose or tailor’s goose was another iron name, and this came from the goose-neck curve in some handles.
By the early 20th century enthusiasm was building for the new electric smoothing irons: clean, powerful, adjustable, and labor-saving. They didn’t make you roasting hot, and they didn’t carry soot or ash from the stove. And yet, there were still plenty of traditionalists who stuck with flat irons (aka sad irons) well into the middle of the 20th century, even when they lived in a home with a good electricity supply.