On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the October Artifacts of the Month are two pre-electric irons.  One iron used charcoal and the other used gasoline to heat it.  These irons show how before the invention of electricity irons were heated in different ways.

Originally, the two irons were part of the Eph Mercer’s antique-filled store that was located in Vermont.  Along with these irons, the Western Illinois Museum acquired quite a number of items when the store closed after Eph Mercer’s death in 1976.  Filled with not only merchandise, but also his personal collection of widely assorted antiques, Eph’s country store was locally famous.

Irons in a variety of forms and shapes have been around since humans wanted to get the wrinkles out of the fabric.   Before the first electric iron was invented in 1882, many different types of implements were created to press cloth.

In the first century BC, the Chinese became the first to apply heat in the process of pressing cloth, using long-handled metal pans filled with charcoal and passing the pans over the cloth to smooth out wrinkles.

In Europe, from the time of the Vikings until the medieval period, stones, glass and wood pieces were used to smooth fabric.  These early “irons” were called linen smoothers or slick stones. Examples of glass linen smoothers from the Viking period have been found in women’s graves, together with small ironing boards made of whalebone.  The pieces of glass were not heated, they would have been used cold on wet fabric to smooth wrinkles, and make the linen shiny.

The first metal irons were called sadirons (the word comes from the Old English word “sald,” meaning solid), and they appeared in the 17th century. The basic sadiron is a shaped piece of metal, with a polished base and attached metal handle that was heated in an open fire or on a stove. The metal handle became hot along with base and had to be handled with a potholder or thick glove. Another factor making them hard to use was that sadirons were heavy, usually ranging from five to nine pounds.

One of the major drawbacks to all sadirons, however, was that they cooled off fairly quickly, thus it was always necessary to have several irons in the fire heating up, so that as soon as one iron had cooled off while ironing, you could get another hot iron from the fire.  That process explains the origin of the sayings, “too many irons in the fire” for too many projects going, or “keep several irons in the fire,” meaning keep several options available.

One solution to the problem of irons always cooling off was the invention of “self-heating” irons. The simplest of these was the charcoal iron, where the hollow interior of the iron could be filled with hot coals. The museum has on display a charcoal iron.

The charcoal iron was an improvement over the sadiron in that it could stay hot longer with coals burning inside.  However, the charcoal iron had some disadvantages too.  In addition to being rather smoky, it was difficult to get a sufficient draft to keep the coals burning. For this reason, they were equipped with high, spout-like openings, so that the coals could be fanned by inserting a bellows, or by swinging the iron back and forth vigorously. The smoke would exit from the funnel chimney spout. The artifact on display has a small vent on the rear of the iron to provide air circulation and the vent door is in the shape of the face of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

The charcoal iron was also still very heavy, weighing around seven pounds.  The cast iron top and bottom pieces are held together with a cotter pin on the back.  The handle is wood, and underneath the handle is a heat shield, so when in use, the hand of the user would not get quite so hot. To add the hot coals, the cotter pin would be pulled and the top could be opened up, and the coals could be placed inside the iron.

This type of charcoal iron was popular from the late 1800’s through the 1930’s in rural areas without electricity. The iron in the museum’s collection is labeled “E. Bless & R. Drake, Patented March 20, 1852.” The Bless & Drake Foundry of Newark, New Jersey was founded by Eleazer Bless and Robert Drake and was in business from approximately 1852 to 1927.

Many new types of irons were developed through the mid 1800’s and into the early 1900’s, each with its own advantages and limitations. This was the grand period of iron development.  One example was the late 1800s, self-heating irons, that were developed to use gasoline and alcohol.  The fuel was stored in small metal tanks at the back of the iron. The major drawback to these was the smell, and the tendency for them to “pop-off” suddenly when escaping fumes ignited, which not only frightened, but also singed the user.

The other iron on display at the museum is a Coleman brand Instant-Lite Model 4A  gasoline-fueled iron with a “cool blue” handle.  Coleman made over 30 different models of irons. The blue Model 4A is the one most often found today in antique shops and on EBay.  It was made between 1929 and 1948.  The little tank on the back would be filled with gasoline, and the pump on the side was used to build up pressure in the fuel tank.

Fuel irons were an improvement over earlier irons that had to be heated on the stove or heated by charcoal. Fuel irons were lighter in weight and their temperature more even, but they made ironing a potentially dangerous job. On the museum example, it is possible to see where the blue wooden handle was burnt on its underside. Gasoline, alcohol, kerosene, and other fuels could cause a fire or explode. Regardless of the potential danger, the control in temperature offered by these fuel-powered irons was hugely popular in areas without electricity. This type of iron was used until the 1970s.

Whatever type of iron you used, ironing fabrics without the benefit of electricity was a hot, arduous job. Constant care was needed over temperature; irons had to be hot enough to smooth out wrinkles, but not too hot, that they would scorch the cloth or hurt the user. These two pre-electric irons show us how much more challenging a simple task was back in the days before electricity.
The two pre-electric irons will be on display at the museum from October 1-31, 2013

From and essay by Heather Munro