The Household Arts: Ironing
This is another in a series of posts about the Household Arts during the 19th century. You can also read our first post about Laundry and our second about drying clothes here. If you have a topic you’d like us to cover, please leave a comment or contact us!
Washing clothes was tough work and after all the scrubbing, twisting, rinsing, wringing and hanging, those who wanted smooth clothes would then have to face the laborious task of ironing. While ironing is still quite physically demanding today, the quality of our electric irons makes the work much more efficient and there is less risk of damage to our clothes.
In the 1850s irons were typically made of solid iron! Isabella Beeton describes the different irons of the era in her book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1982 Edition, Page 1011) as such:
The irons consist of the common flat-iron, which is of different sizes varying from 4 to 10 inches in length, triangular in form, and from 2.5 to 4.5 inches in width at the broad end; the oval iron, which is used for more delicate articles; and the box-iron, which is hollow, and heated by a red-hot iron inserted in to the box. The Italian iron is a hollow tube, smooth on the outside, and raised on a slender pedestal with a footstalk. Into the hollow cylinder a red-hot iron is pushed, which heats it; and the smooth outside of the latter is used, on which articles such as frills, and plaited articles, are drawn.
The irons (or inserts) were heated on a stove or fire grill and therefore had to be handled with extreme care so as not to cause burns. It was also quite an art to correctly manage the temperature so that precious garments were not subjected to unsightly burn marks. Most ladies would own multiple irons to suit different purposes and also for efficiency – so one could be heating while another is in use.
Another common element to the ironing chore was the process of starching, where a starch mixture is added to the washing where extra stiffness is needed.
You can find out more about the history of ironing here.