Screenwriting is like ironing. You move forward a little bit and go back and smooth things out. –Paul Thomas Anderson
Take that ironing and have it back in an hour! One hour, you hear? –Drizella in Cinderella
Ironing! Yep, we Wenches find no shortage of things to talk about, and we’ve declared all sorts of surprising subjects to be blog-worthy, especially if there’s some historical significance in it somewhere. Recently we were chatting about the value (OK, and serious lack of) in ironing—which, lo and behold, turns out to have an interesting history in everyday life across cultures and centuries.
The Wenchly interest in ironing (mostly intellectual, to be sure) began when Nicola mentioned that she’d just finished a manuscript and had sent it off to her editor (cheers to Nicola!), and that she was currently ironing like mad—“Needs must!”—to catch up on housework neglected in the natural process of meeting a deadline. Cara/Andrea commented that ironing and laundry tasks are pretty relaxing compared to finishing a book, while Jo said that while occasionally something may need ironing (something rarely worn *g*), she “quite likes ironing while listening to an audio book. I find it soothing.” Pat added that if her husband bought shirts that needed ironing, she made him take them to the dry cleaners or do them himself—and he soon learned to look for wrinkle-free tags.
“I have an iron, but got rid of my full size ironing board,” Mary Jo said, finding a little one that attaches to the side of the dryer and can be flipped up if ever ironing is desperately needed. This may be once every three or four years.”
“I used to iron more—things can get crumpled hanging in the wardrobe," Anne told us, “but I do recall a day where I spent a whole afternoon ironing and watching some video on TV – it was relaxing and hypnotic, and I still remember the scent of the hot iron on freshly sun-dried cotton. I remember it because I got so carried away, I even ironed the sheets!!! This was a once only event in my life.”
“I possess an iron,” Joanna said, “which sits in lone splendor up on a top shelf until I need my outfit to go play 'author' in. There are folks who iron everything. They have creases in their bluejeans. If I were writing contemporary I'd use that as a defining aspect of the character.”
Joanna also shared that she lived in West Africa at one point, and had a maid there “who ironed every bit of cloth in the house, always, to kill the eggs of tumbu flies, which we had in great numbers. A byproduct of this health and safety routine was that I never looked so neat.”
“At last! A practical reason for ironing,” said Andrea. Certainly if there was ever a reason to drag out the iron, tumbu flies would be it. We’d be ironing like mad (and bleaching, washing, scrubbing . . .).
So, probably like most of you, ironing is not real high on our Wenchly to-do lists, but we do appreciate its finer points—the back-and forth motion of ironing and the careful work of eliminating wrinkles can be very soothing, clearing the head and allowing some thinking time. Neatening up clothing while reducing the laundry pile can create a sense of order and accomplishment—and bringing a little order into some chaos can create a sense of peace and mindfulness. And the familiar smell of a starched, freshly laundered shirt under a hot iron can be nostalgic and comforting.
My grandmother had a set of small flatirons which her own mother had heated on a coal stove before pressing clothing with these remarkably solid, heavy little things. I have my grandmother’s antique irons now, and I use them for bookends and doorstoppers, and they’re perfect for that (just don’t drop one on your foot!). Jo’s mother used similar irons too, heating them on the big stove plate. “As she grudgingly accepted technology,” Jo said, “she’d say that they worked the best because of the weight.” And Andrea’s mother, an artist and bookbinder, had several of those old heavy iron irons too, which she found in antique stores and used as weights for bookbinding, to press the paper signatures before sewing them together and making the spine backing.
But before there were electric steam irons (and dry cleaners!)—and before there were flat, heavy irons made of iron, how did people neaten their clothing? Did they care, way back when, if their tunics and sarks, their skirts and petticoats and frills, or their curtains and bedsheets and bits of embroidered cloth were wrinkled? You betcha.
Historically it's not clear where ironing absolutely began, but it probably started as soon as someone noticed that a hot stone dragged over a wrinkled cloth smoothed the fabric out and made it look a whole lot better. The simple science of applying heat and pressure to a piece of fabric—such as a hot iron—involves the separation and straightening of the molecules and fibers in the cloth, which then stay straight and neat for a little while—until the wearer bends and creases the fibers again, requiring more laundering and pressing.
Romans, for example, were very particular about their laundry techniques—soaking clothes in great tubs of urine to clean and bleach them—and likely had some pressing methods as well. The Egyptians liked plenty of pleats in their mostly white tunics—and it's a fair bet they found a way to crease those pleats. We do know that the Chinese and other Asian cultures found a way, very early, to press and smooth cloth by stroking the cloth with hot pans filled with coals.
Viking women used smoothing boards made of stone or whalebone, beautifully
shaped and decorated with carvings, along with smooth polished stones (sometimes made of heavy glass) that were probably heated as well and then rubbed over cloth (presumably with the use of some kind of protective hot pad for the hand!) to remove wrinkles. Busy trade routes from the northern countries into Asia and the Mediterranean and elsewhere, and back again, brought fine silks and linens into high-ranking Viking households. Considering the care that Viking women took with many household details, and the symbolic and ritualistic importance placed on even mundane tasks in Viking society, it is not surprising that beautiful smoothing boards and stones have been found in several graves belonging to Viking women.
Glass and stone smoothing tools were used in the medieval era as well. Some of them, called slickenstones, were artistic carved objects, and the principle would have been the same as the Vikings and Chinese used—rubbing a heavy, heated object over dry or dampened cloth.
I n the 16th and 17th centuries, when frills and great starched, lacy ruff collars were all the rage for the well-dressed noble or merchant, goffering irons began to appear—metal tubes on elongated stands with handles. The tubes were heated and applied to starched linens and laces in intricate ways to produce the remarkable architectural frilled collars and cuffs so mandatory to fashion then. The starching, creasing and pressing process must have taken the laundress or tailor simply forever to do–and one must wonder how comfortable the things were to wear.
The advent of the true iron—great heavy triangular chunks of iron fitted with
handles—came about by the 18th century, and these were used well into the 20th century. Some of the
irons were hollow, with hot coals put inside, while most were of solid iron and set on hot plates and stoves and on heaters specifically made for heating several irons at once. The secret of ironing with a true flatiron is to heat several in rotation, and as one cools, grabbing another to keep the work going – a very effective upper body workout.
Artists often painted women ironing clothes—finding the subject to be not only a typical everyday activity, but one that could express the simplicity, patience, strength and
perseverance of women, and the poetic visual metaphor of good work well done. The subject often appears in 18th century genre painting—beautifully documenting and detailing the tasks of daily life.
In the 19th century, Degas, among other artists, repeated the theme of women ironing in beautiful variation, exploring a theme of strength and simplicity, simply and poetically observed in shapes and color blocks of cloth and table and sturdy women bathed in textured, ambient light—while Picasso’s exploration of a woman ironing evokes a tortured soul more than observant simplicity.
In the artworks, the ironing is done on tables of various shapes and sizes. In 1858, the first ironing board, shaped to better fit shirts, sleeves and so on, was invented, and a folding model followed soon after. Electric irons were first invented in 1882 by Henry Seeley, who called it an "electric flatiron.“
So, all because Nicola chose to do her ironing after finishing her most recent book, there’s a basic history of ironing! Who knew that it was not only a necessary household chore, but one filled with craftsmanship, artistry, peacefulness and simplicity that not only enhanced the lives of people long ago, but gave artists a thoughtful, beautiful subject—and after doing all that research, I’ve concluded that ironing is not so bad after all.
What is your stance on ironing? Are you an ironing master, an appreciator, a meditator? Does it serve your sense of order and soothe your spirit—or do you go to great lengths to avoid it? Which art image above matches your ironing personality — lady's maid and craftsman, peaceful elegance, or tortured ironing misery? And if you were a Viking woman with a beautifully carved dragon-head slate and a polished stone on hand, would you let the wrinkled tunics pile up in the corner?
Susan, who hardly ever irons . . .