Nicola here and today I am tackling the ironing, literally in fact as a bout of Covid followed by a trip away has meant that I am a bit behind on all my chores. I know there are people who enjoy ironing, who even find it therapeutic, but I am not one of them. I don’t like it at all. But I do like the result – nicely pressed clothes and smooth bed linen, so that presents me with a bit of a dilemma.
Smoothing clothes to get rid of creases and make them look – and feel – nicer is apparently an ancient pastime. Before the Chinese used metal to press cloth over a thousand years ago, people had been using heated rocks to flatten animal hides for millennia. Materials such as stone, wood and glass had been used as well, but the first “iron” appeared in the Middle Ages. There were a number of issues associated with early irons such as not being able to regulate their heat on an open fire, getting soot and dirt on the clothes and the iron cooling down rapidly and needing to be frequently re-heated. This does remind me a little of my steam iron which has a habit of spitting chalky water on my clothes unexpectedly when I am trying to press them.
I must admit that the glass linen smoothers fascinate me as they are often very beautiful. These “slick stones' are also known as 'slickers', 'sleekstones', 'slickenstones' and 'calenders'. Often made from dark green glass, the earlier Viking and medieval versions were rounded and without handles. They were about the right size to fit comfortably in your hand and were used on both sides. Apparently examples from the Viking period have been found with a small ‘ironing’ board made of whalebone! Later, from the 16th century onwards, slick stones would have handles and their use continued into the 19th century, long after the introduction of flat irons. Glass linen smoothers were used cold, whilst the material that was being smoothed would be damp.
Ironing my duvet covers is a challenge these days because of the size and also because the dog enjoys lying on the warm and freshly ironed material. This prompted me to wonder how such large pieces of material like bed linen would be smoothed in the past and I discovered there were wooden frames used to stretch damp cloth and also rollers (known as calenders) which bedding and other large items could be pressed between. This reminded me of a mangle, which was a piece of laundry apparatus that I remember my grandmother still using in the second half of the twentieth century. The mangle has a special place in our family folklore because my great-grandfather once rolled my great-grandmother’s skirts into a mangle after an argument and left her trapped there all day. I never met him but I disliked him on the basis of that story alone!
More ironing history, and the flat iron, also known as the sad iron or smoothing iron was first invented by blacksmiths in the middle ages. Some irons from this period were made from stone and some from terracotta. They needed to be held with a thick cloth on the handle to absorb the heat, though some had wooden handles. Two irons were ideal, one heating up on the fire whilst the other was in use. Guessing the right temperature of an iron like this was a fine art to avoid burning the cloth. A well-known test was spitting on the hot metal – not very genteel – and in The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens writes “she held the iron at an alarmingly short distance from her cheek, to test its temperature.” Eek!
Of course if you were an aristocrat you didn’t need to worry about any of these domestic chores. In this 1780 painting by Thomas Morland a rather winsome
maid is ironing some linen and looking very serene. There’s no suggestions of either her appearance or her tools being affected by the real hardship of domestic labour!
For my grandmother, Monday was washing day and Tuesday ironing day assuming that the weather had been good enough to dry everything outside the day before. Along with strong memories of ironing day in her house – the smell of hot material combining with the smell of fresh air from the dried clothes – I also remember the folk song “dashing away with the smoothing iron” which I she sang as she worked:
‘Twas on a [ Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday ] morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble, O
[ A-washing | A-shaking | A-drying | A-airing | A-ironing | A-folding | A-wearing ] of her linen, O
Anyway, writing this blog piece has helped me avoid the ironing for another hour or so but I’d better get back to the ironing board. How do you feel about ironing? Are you comfortable with unironed clothes or bedding? Do you love ironing? And do you have any childhood memories of the old-fashioned ways it was done before the advent of the electric iron?