From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society

Our current Curator’s Show contains an interesting variety of tools ranging from a potato planter to 3 generations of bread-making machines. Early Rochester settlers, like everyone in the early centuries of America, did everything by hand, so all of our early tools are hand tools. As the many years have passed since those early days and with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, tools were invented to make work easier. These improvements happened most quickly for those jobs done by the predominately-male workforce. However, some improvements were also made in the ways that women accomplished their many chores.

            In 2022, laundry is still most often a woman’s task, but tossing clothes into a washing machine is a big improvement over the washboards that were used to scrub dirt out of clothing (we have some of those in our display). While early washing machines finally took over the scrubbing, a wringer (yes, we have one of those too) had to be operated by hand to squeeze out as much water as possible before hanging items on the clothesline. Of course, clothes dried on the line most often needed their wrinkles pressed out. Of all the jobs associated with “doing the wash,” ironing is probably my least favorite. Fortunately for me, today’s fabrics are less prone to wrinkle and items removed immediately from the dryer (my mother set the example here) often need no ironing.

            Beginning in the Middle Ages, blacksmiths made flat or smoothing irons. These were called “sad irons,” not because that’s how anyone using them felt, but because the old English definition of sad was solid. Metal was shaped into the triangle we still associate with an iron today. The bottom was polished until smooth. Metal handles were then attached. The irons, which could weigh as much as 9 pounds, would be heated in the fireplace or on the stove. The heat and weight combined to press out wrinkles. Of course, the metal handles heated along with the base and women had to wrap them with some type of cloth to avoid burned hands and fingers. As time passed, wooden handles made the process less painful.

            The first detachable handles were (not surprisingly) patented in 1871 by a woman, Mary Florence Potts, of Ottumwa, Iowa. With these handles, a woman could have more than one handle heating at a time and she could simply switch the handle from a cooled base to a hot one. Though the handles moved the job along faster, they didn’t make the irons any lighter.

            In the accompanying picture, you can see a sad iron base. Beside it is an interesting item that we found in the museum. It is a “necktie iron.” The literature that came with this invention claims that if you slip a necktie over the long triangular metal piece and then plug in the cord, you will have a wrinkle free necktie. As of now, we haven’t tested it to see how well it works. Thanks to Sue LaFleur for the information on the history of the “sad iron.”

By Connie Eshbach

Leave A Comment...