Very simple in design, flat irons and box irons were the 'state of the art' in the 18th and 19th centuries,
before the advent of electric irons.
Early cultures used a variety of wooden presses and smoothly shaped stones to
press their clothes. But it was not until the 17th century that there is the first reference to a flat iron. And it was only in the 18th century that the first patent for a heated box iron was taken out by Isaac Wilkinson, a British manufacturer.
There were two types of early heated iron: the 'sad' iron (the name is a corruption of the word 'solid') and the box iron.
Sad irons were heated on a special stove or were stood close to the coals of the fire. They came in pairs, one being used while the other was heated: when the first had cooled, the second was taken up. They had to be used with care: the intense heat from the iron could scorch the fabric, and there was a tendency for the iron to become coated with soot from the flames.
Box irons, on the other hand, were much cleaner. They were hollow and were heated by a red hot metal 'slug', heated in the fire then removed with tongs and inserted into the iron. The slug was safely retained by closing a hinged or sliding door at the back of the iron. Box irons were soon supplied with two slugs which were used in a similar manner to the pairs of sad irons. Box irons had more pointed ends than sad irons, making them ideal for inching into heavily gathered material or awkward corners. Both types of iron were made smoother and easier to handle by coating their bases with beeswax or soap.
The box iron was gradually superseded by the charcoal or ember iron. This had a body about
10cm / 4in deep, and a hollow interior which could be filled with red hot charcoal or embers. A row of holes at the side (often in a decorative pattern) and sometimes a
chimney like spout at the front allowed any noxious fumes to escape. Some irons had an adjustable aperture to increase or decrease the draught and so regulate the heat.
The sad iron was made in a number of sizes from 10-25cm / 4-10in in length and from 6-11cm/2
1/2 - 4 1/2 inch in width. The sizes were graded from one (small) to 12 and sometimes up to
14 but manufacturers failed to standardize their sizes.
The most famous sad iron was one patented by Mrs Potts in 1871. Known as 'Mrs Potts Patent' or 'Mrs Potts Cold-Handle Sad Iron' this had a detachable handle that always remained cool; the base was pointed at both
ends. It proved so popular that it was manufactured under licence worldwide, and was
still in production as late as 1953.
The laundry room in a large Edwardian house would have had at least two types
of iron. The flat iron was ideal for household linen, for instance, while the cylindrical 'Tally' iron was used for bows and frills.
A set of flat irons can look good on a shelf or ranged across a red-tiled hearth. Some people even use small sad irons as door stops. Iron stands, especially those in brass, can be well displayed on a hearth or a low surface and might even be displayed on the wall, rather like horse brasses.
The more attractive irons - those in ornate brass with turned wooden handles - look good as ornaments, as do unusual types like the 'Tally' iron in iron and brass.
Many antiques shops stock a few flat irons which they may have acquired as part of a job-lot in a house clearance sale. But the best place to study a wide variety of irons is at a specialist dealer. They usually specialize in kitchen and dairy utensils and will not only have a good selection of irons but will also know a good deal about them and may be able to give you information on the makers.
Fuelled irons first appeared in the late 19th century. Among the fuels used were paraffin,
petroleum, naphtha, alcohol and methylated spirits; the French used vegetable oil. Running costs were relatively low: a spirit-heated iron cost a farthing an hour in fuel. Irons weighed anything from 900g to
4.5kg / 2-10lbs; some were nickel-plated.
At the turn of the century, coal-gas irons appeared. Some fed gas directly into the iron by means of a flexible pipe, so that an interior burner could be lit. An alternative was to heat a hollow iron over a burning gas jet.
Electric irons were developed in about 1880, but they were awkward and heavy to use and were expensive.
Those in the fashion trade had a variety of specialized irons for particular purposes. The tailor's goose iron was an elongated flat iron used for pressing seams, and was so called because of the long handle which resembled the neck of a goose. The Italian or 'Tally' iron was a hollow metal cylinder set on a stand, and was heated by the insertion of a glowing poker. Ribbons, bows, frills and ruffles were passed back and forth over the hot cylinder to smooth out their creases.
Milliners and hatters had various specially adapted irons. The hatter would use a rim iron when making a top hat, and the crown would be finished off by ironing with a
nap-smoother. Both types of iron had small, hollow oblong boxes with smaller slugs. They had extended rods and resembled a long-handled brush in shape. The milliner, who made ladies' hats, used a double-pointed iron that could be rotated in a circle for ironing the crown of a bonnet.
Despite the name 'iron', early flat irons were made from various metals: the
Dutch, for example, favoured brass. These irons were made by master craftsmen, and were often lavishly decorated with engraving. Humbler iron versions were made by blacksmiths, and some British irons were made in cast steel.
Tailors' goose irons were elongated flat irons with long, twisted handles that resembled the neck
of a goose. They were used for pressing seams.