The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


May 10, 2013

The long and storied history of garments and ironing

Point blank

Like most men, I don’t iron. I never have. Oh, maybe once or twice when I was a kid, but never again.

Ironing shirts is too meticulous for my meager domestic talents. I don’t have the acumen to stay focused for very long on a project that involves steam, a hot metal object and cloth.

But I do marvel at the stamina of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers who plied their skills when irons were heated on a coal or wood burning stove — irons that weighed as much as 15 pounds each.

Ironing is the use of a heated tool (an iron) to remove wrinkles from fabric. The heating is commonly done to a temperature of 180-220 degrees Celsius, depending on the fabric. Some fabrics, such as cotton, require the addition of water to loosen the intermolecular bonds.

But many modern fabrics (developed in or after the mid-20th century) are advertised as needing little or no ironing. Permanent press clothing was developed to reduce the ironing necessary by combining wrinkle-resistant polyester with cotton.

Let’s take a walk back in time.

Smooth, wrinkle-free clothing has been a symbol of refinement, cleanliness and status for at least 2,400 years — although the desired effect was never easy to achieve.

All early irons employed pressure; only some used heat to remove creases and impart pleats to washed garments.

The ancient Greeks in the 4th century B.C. bore down on a heated cylinder bar, similar to a rolling pin, which was run over linen robes to produce pleats.

Two centuries later, the Romans were pressing garments and creating pleats with a hand-held “mangle,” a flat metal mallet that literally hammered out wrinkles. With such devices, ironing was more than just a tedious, time-consuming chore; it was slaves’ work — and was done by slaves.

Even the warring 10th century Vikings of Northern Europe prized wrinkle-free garments, often pleated. They employed an iron in the shape of an inverted mushroom, which was rocked back and forth on dampened fabric.

Fashion historians claim that it was the difficulty in producing pleats that made them a clothing distinction between upper and lower classes. Peasants did not have the time to iron in rows of creases; pleats became an outward statement of owning slaves or servants.

In the jargon of economics professors, pleats would be an early equivalent of “conspicuous consumption,” kind of like when your neighbor parks his boat, sports car, travel trailer, motorcycle, suburban vehicle and 4-wheeler in his front yard as symbols of job success.

By the 15th century, wealthier European homes had a “hot box” iron with a compartment for heated coals or a single fired brick.

Poorer families still used the “flat” iron, a piece of metal with a handle, which was periodically heated over a fire. The tremendous disadvantage of the flat iron was that the soot it collected from fireplace flames could be transferred to clothes.

Once gas lighting was introduced into homes in the 19th century, many inventors produced gas-heated irons, which tapped into a family’s gas line.

But the frequency with which the irons leaked, exploded and started home fires made wrinkled clothes preferable to those who favored safety over annihilation.

The real boom in ironing came with the installation of electric lines into the homes.

That’s basically where we stand today, with a few women still slaving over an ironing board to keep their family’s clothes neatly pressed and pleated.

Increasingly, though, the household ironing labor now has shifted to the local dry cleaners. That’s where my wife takes my shirts for laundering. She stopped ironing several years ago. Why? I don’t know. I bought her a new iron and ironing board for her birthday.

And with wrinkle-free clothing now mass produced all over the world, there’s little use for an old-fashioned ironing board and steam iron.

Eventually, household ironing likely will disappear altogether from the American scene. Ironing on a small, portable, foldable table with heat resistant surface will recede into the past with only a few historians being able to describe it to future generations the way we now look back on the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.

Someday, no doubt, a child will ask her mom a question while doing her homework on a miniature computer with billions of memory images: “What was it that our ancestors used to do with their clothes after they washed them?”

And mom’s reply might be something like: “I can’t remember.”


Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail:


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