|by Larry LeMasters
Recently, I visited Salem, Ill., where Abe Lincoln split logs, ran a general store, and lived the “good ol’ life.” One item of interest I saw there was a primitive, blacksmith-made sad iron, which might have made life in the good ol’ days simpler.
However, life in the “good ol’ days” was far from simpler. Most women worked exhaustingly from sunup to sundown with little time to sleep and no time for leisure. Mondays were often spent, literally all day, washing clothes in a cauldron.
Tuesday was usually set aside for ironing, a chore that took all day and was nearly as tiring as washing. As one expert noted, “Ironing is admitted to be somewhat trying work, because much heat is involved; but orderly procedure and good methods will prevent the worker from getting into a flurried state of mind.”
Women in the 18th and 19th centuries used a “sad iron” to press their families’ clothes, and ironing often left the women both sad and sore since a sad iron weighed 14 pounds or more, depending on the iron’s style. Sad irons do not mean “unhappy” irons as the word now implies, but they do mean heavy irons. So all heavy irons are known as sad irons. Although many of these irons were small, they were very heavy. When sad irons were heated near an open fire or on the stove, their handles became red hot. Women tried wrapping aprons or towels around the handles, but still burned their fingers.
Sad irons were first written about at the beginning of the 16th century; although, they were undoubtedly used long before then. When they came into general use in Europe, it was the Dutch that pioneered its popularity; however, the term “sad iron” is of ancient usage.
The word “sad,” in its earliest use, meant solid or heavy, a meaning that is now obsolete “Two grete ymages of golde sad” and “with iron nayles sad, his fete was schod.” Were both written about 1330, and the meaning of “sad” in both is evident.
The earliest printed English reference to sad irons is in 1832 by Babbage, On Economy of Machines and Manufactures: “…sad irons and other castings.” And in 1833, J. Holland wrote, “Dealers commonly distinguish these useful implements by the term, sad-iron.”
As technology advanced, irons fueled by charcoal, gas, and alcohol became available. Brass hot-box irons were fueled by charcoal, which was placed in the body of the iron and lit. The burning charcoal heated the iron. Brass hot-box irons had a small tank for white gasoline, and a valve at the base of the iron regulated the amount of fuel fed to the burner. It’s hard to imagine ironing with a burning flame inside an iron, but these liquid fueled irons were sold to rural families well into the twentieth century. The liquid fuel sometimes caught on fire, singed the handle, or simply exploded. These irons had a pipe that was attached to the gas line in the home and lit with a match, much like a gas stove. Dangerous as they were, gas irons had a continuous supply of fuel, were light, and maintained a more even temperature than the old sad irons.
There were many styles of American sad irons. Notable ones include the Tailor’s Goose, which was handmade from one piece of iron. The open end of the handle allowed the iron to be hung on a rod over an open fire with the ironing surface heated on the hot coals. It’s a small wonder that so many women received hand burns while ironing.
Charcoal irons were plentiful. Ones like Bless, made by Cummings, Taliaferro and Bless (1852) had a charcoal bin in the base where lit charcoal simmered, warming the iron. Bless used Hephaestus, the Greek god of ironworkers, as its trademark.
“Sensibles,” patented September 19, 1871, by the N.R. Streeter & Co. of Groton, NY offered several types of sad irons, performing several uses, for the busy homemaker, including smoothing irons, sleeve irons, and standard irons.
“Neplusultra,” patented 1902, by the National Iron Distributing Co of Drexel Hill, PA, burned a coke nugget that was sold by its maker.
Collectors also look for interesting accessory pieces to sad irons. Iron trivets are both beautiful and practical additions to a sad iron collection since all sad irons had to sit on something. Another interesting accessory is a blow can. In the early days of ironing, Chinese laundry workers held water in their mouths and blew it on the clothes as they ironed them, creating a primitive form of steam. American housewives frowned on this practice, so the blow can was invented. A blow can held water and was held in the mouth while a woman ironed. When she needed water, she simply blew into the can’s stem.
Sad irons remain abundant and easy to find, so starting a collection is not difficult. Rare ones, however, do cost dearly, making your wallet, sadly, lighter. And, of course, sad irons make lovely doorstops too.