Sometimes we come across such a spectacular artefact, that we are inspired to look a little deeper into the historical industry from which it was used. The discovery of a charcoal clothes iron got me thinking about the domestic lives of 19th century women, and the ironing industry in colonial New Zealand. During my research for this blog post, I found countless newspaper advertisements for laundry soaps, starches, ironing stoves and laundress services, as well as reports brimming with derivatives of “while the lady of the house was in the other room ironing…” The amount of time and sweat that went into this industry is a far cry from the afterthought that we largely give ironing today. If you’re anything like me, you avoid wearing easily wrinkled linen, and unless it’s a special occasion, your t-shirt or blouse is lucky to a get a last minute iron over with the hair straightener you were just using on your hair (this is the most convenient addition to laundry technology in the 21st century, in my opinion).
A quick office survey confirmed that we here at Underground Overground Archaeology do not habitually iron our sheets or our ‘high vis’. Instead, we save this indulgence for important events, such as a legitimate special occasion, helping to dry damp clothes, ironing pant cuffs so they don’t fall down (for the vertically challenged among us), and many of us can recount the distant memory of pressing pleats into our school uniform kilts on Sunday nights. How did this industry lose such importance you ask? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that when we take a look at the previous generation, my mother saved ironing for her hair in the 70s, and my father let his shirts blow dry in the wind. This being the case, perhaps the ‘un-domestication’ of Generation X isn’t to blame (in this instance) for the loss of an old tradition.
What struck me about the difference between our modern attitudes toward ironing and that of our predecessors was how commonplace it was for a 19th century woman to be spending her day performing this back-breaking labour. Ironing was such an important skill, that little girls would be given miniature flat irons as gifts and taught ironing “and other necessary skills” in convent school (New Zealand Tablet 23/12/1881: 11). The number of ironing stoves and mangles that I found advertised for sale in local newspapers during the 19th century illustrates their mainstream popularity. The task had to be completed weekly, and for 19th century housewives or servants, it was customary for the entirety of Monday to be taken up by washing and drying laundry, while the whole of Tuesday was reserved for ironing it (Poverty Bay Herald 3/4/1879: 2). The chore was so familiar that I found many articles toting advice about timesaving ironing techniques (e.g. Otago Witness 22/1/ 1876: 19). My favourite tip, and the most realistic, was to simply stop ironing things… The sensible woman who wrote this article suggests hanging the laundry out to dry in the wind and ignoring the bed linen, nightclothes, tablecloths and napkins. Alternatively, another recommended that ironing energy should be saved for children’s aprons and shirt cuffs (Bruce Herald 9/6/1876: 3).
By now, you might be forming the impression that ironing in the 19th century was quite labor-intensive. In fact, the task was so arduous that we see housewives complaining constantly of their heavy and time-consuming burden in local newspapers, and there is even a story of one woman obtaining a doctor’s certificate to prevent her from doing too much ironing (Wairarapa Standard 23/12/1875: 2). Victorian ironing was not only backbreaking; it also came with its share of health risks – there was the danger involved with using gas-fuelled irons, or the first electric irons (patented in 1882), which were not temperature controlled by thermostats until the 1920s (Gretton 2016). Having said this, the first electric irons were not commonly used. They were not only dangerous, but most Victorian households did not have electricity, and if they did, it was common to only use electricity in the evenings for lighting.
During the 19th century, the most common type of iron used was called a flat iron, otherwise known as a sad iron (commonly thought to be called sad, due to the negative attitudes that its use invoked, though ‘sad’ is actually an old English ‘solid’; Gretton 2016). Sad irons required an intricate system of heating and rotation. Several heavy flat irons were heated on a special iron stove, and sometimes heat tested by holding a hot iron near one’s cheek (you would not catch me doing this). It was used until it cooled down, then returned to the stove and replaced with one of its hotter counterparts (the phrase "to have many irons in the fire" derives from this practice). These irons were heavy and hot, and the system required special skill and experience. Several improvements were made during the second half of the 19th century in order to streamline the process. These included a sad iron that was pointed at both ends, so one could iron in either direction. There was also the addition was a detachable wooden handle, which helped prevent the burning of the user (Figure 1). These patents were granted to a housewife named Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1870 (Ladd 2014).
The specific iron that started this enquiry was not the type that was heated on an iron stove. It was called a box iron or charcoal iron, which had a built in, hinged, chamber to store hot coals or other fuels so the iron would stay hotter for longer (Figure 2). A tool with such characteristics would not have to be replaced on the ironing stove, making the job a whole lot more efficient. However, this technology was not without its drawbacks, as the coal made the task of ironing a smoky one, which sometimes left residual ash or odour on freshly cleaned fabrics (heartbreaking). This type of iron required a chimney or spout-like opening, to insert a bellows into or to produce a sufficient draft to stoke the coals when swung back and forth (Gretton 2016). This particular model was manufactured by Jabez and John Whitehouse, Victoria, Tipton, as illustrated by the maker’s mark on its gilded copper heat shield (Figure 3). This English company owned the Phoenix Foundry on Castle Street, Tipton, and produced cast iron goods from the late 19th century until the 1920s (Powerhouse Museum 2016). It is unclear whether this specific iron was used commercially or domestically, but its operator would have had to eat their Wheat-bix, as it weighs a whopping 4 kilograms! If Garfield were a 19th century domestic housewife, I bet that he would have hated Tuesdays!
As mentioned, we can’t be certain whether this iron was used in a domestic house or a commercial laundry. If this was used as a commercial iron, let us have a look at what this industry was like locally during the 1900s. Comparatively, while we think nothing of dropping our badly stained or trickier to wash garments at a dry cleaner, or if we are especially lazy or busy, we drop all of our soiled goods or ‘bachelor bundles’ at a ‘fluff & fold’ (regrettably, I couldn’t find fun 19th century comparative terms for these). The demand for large scale laundries is alluded to in 1842, in a (presumably fictitious) newspaper report describing American girls attaching hot irons to their feet and skating over garments (New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3).
Additionally, 19th century newspapers present countless advertisements for private laundresses, illustrating a viable business opportunity for women in Victorian society. In fact, the gift of a mangle to a widow at the wake of her deceased husband was a common occurrence (Ladd 2016). On a larger scale, full-size commercial laundries appear to have been common in New Zealand during the second half of the 19th century (Evening Post 24/11/1876: 2, Otago Daily Times 10/04/1876: 5, Star 24/08/1880: 2; 19/05/1881: 4).
Below is an advertisement and price list from 1880 for a new steam laundry in Christchurch (Figure 5). The article boasts about a new ironing machine that will polish collars and cuffs like new and promises that no article will be damaged by the process! As in the domestic sphere, it is likely that it was women who would have been operating these laundry machines. This same article advertises the skills of a French laundress. The small number of women who were in paid employment in New Zealand during the 19th century (a fifth of women over fifteen in 1874 and less than a quarter by 1891) were working in factories, domestic service, tailoring and shop work (Else 2012). No doubt some of these women were employed as laundresses.
Whether or not a fatigued housewife or servant, or an overworked and underpaid laundress used this iron, we can assume that it was used to successfully press its share of garments. While the finished product of freshly starched and wrinkle-free linen is not the social necessity it once was, it was a fun artefact to research and I hope the original iron’s 19th century owner thought that the finished result of their labour was worth their toil.
Bruce Herald [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].
Else. A., 2012. Gender inequalities - Paid employment, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, [online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/gender-inequalities/page-4. [Accessed January 2016].
Gretton., L. 2016. ‘A History of ironing.’ Old & Interesting. [online] Available at: http://www.oldandinteresting.com/antique-irons-smoothers-mangles.aspx. [Accessed January 2016.
Hawera & Normanby Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].
Ladd, M. 2014. ‘Historical Treasure: Mrs. Potts’ sad iron.’ Tribune-Star. [online] Available at: http://www.tribstar.com/news/lifestyles/historical-treasure-mrs-potts-sad-iron/article_e5ef38e0-b1ff-563b-b2a1-4ab04796775e.html [Accessed January 2016].
New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].
New Zealand Tablet [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].
Otago Witness [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].
Poverty Bay Herald [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].
Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].
Powerhouse Museum, 2016. Collections [online] Available at: http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=242565. Accessed January 2016].
Wairarapa Standard [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].