Blacksmiths started forging simple flat irons in the late Middle Ages. Plain metal irons were heated by a fire or on a stove. Some early irons were made of stone, earthenware or terracotta.
Flat irons were also called sad irons or smoothing irons. The sad in sad iron (or sadiron) is an old word for solid, and in some contexts this name suggests something bigger and heavier than a flat iron. The metal handles were as hot as the iron and had to be gripped with a pad or thick rag. In 1871 U. S. Patent number 113,448 was filed by Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa. The invention was a detachable body and handle for sad irons. This permitted a person to heat a number of iron cores on a stove, attach the handle to one and iron with it until it cooled, then attach it to another heated iron core. This invention shortened ironing time by eliminating the time waiting for the iron to reheat. At least two irons were needed for an efficient system: one in use, and one re-heating. Since the handles were no longer heated with the iron, wood handles which didn’t conduct heat could be used. Cool handles stayed even cooler in asbestos sad irons.
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 were regularly but lightly greased to avoid rusting. Beeswax prevented irons from sticking to starched cloth. Constant observation was needed over the iron’s temperature. Experience helped decide when the iron was hot enough, but not so hot that it scorched the cloth. A well-known test was spitting on the hot metal.
In 1996 Aunt Dorothy Kline Myhrberg reminisced about ironing. “We couldn’t even think about going anywhere until those two oil cloth lined bushel baskets filled with ironing were done. Mom wet the clothes wetter than they were when they came out of the washing machine. [Then the items were rolled and packed in the baskets so they became damp through. It is easier to remove the wrinkles from damp cloth.] We had an ironing board that set on the table and a regular ironing board. One of us ironed the flat things on the table board and the other one used the ironing board. We had to get all those baskets of clothes dried with those irons off the stove.”
The first electric iron was patented in 1882, but was far from an instant success, as most households lacked electricity — and many that did had power only in the evening to run lights. In addition, the early electric models were difficult to regulate. None had thermostats until the late 1920s. Edna Trausch didn’t have an electric iron until after the farmhouse was wired for electricity in 1950.
The J W Williams Company was established at Chagrin Falls, Ohio in 1844. I do not know when they began making sad irons, but they were manufacturing them by the 1870s. In 1895 the Montgomery Ward catalogue sold solid metal irons similar to this one by the pound–.02 ½ cents a pound. This iron, which weighs six pounds, would have cost 15 cents. By the 1908 Wards catalogue all irons had wood handles.
Dover Manufacturing Company, from Dover, Ohio, produced this salesman’s sample sad iron numbered 602. Salesman’s samples are a scaled-down version of the item that is for sale, so that it can be easily transported. This sad iron could also be used on small jobs like ironing collars, cuffs, or lace. The iron is in good condition with some age-related wear to the surfaces and light rust. It measures 3 ½ inches long and 2 ¼ inches tall. This iron was given to me by Pat’s grandmother, Clarice Clark Renschler Bugg. She said that as a girl she played with the iron.
This was the iron my mother used prior to 1950. Unfortunately I do not know when she got it, however I suspect she purchased it used. She told me that prior to her marriage in 1937 she went to auctions in Hastings to purchase household items she needed. This iron was in production as early as 1906.
This iron has asbestos inside the cover that fits over the heated core. The asbestos prevented the heat from rising up to the woman’s hand. It also kept the iron hot longer. The ad below is for the identical iron.