The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
A “Brief History” Lesson from The Quilt Scout
Lesson 1: The Iron
There’s a saying that goes something like, “The good old days weren’t that great.” Or, if the old-timer is feeling particularly spicy:
“The good old days? They stank!”
Makes you just want to press every shirt in the house, don’t it? (Photo: Wikipedia.)When it comes to quiltmaking, a lot of people don’t like the idea that maybe life wasn’t better (way) back in the day. This is because the enduring romance of the patchwork quilt* insists that quilts be hand-snipped, hand-pieced, nostalgia-soaked artifacts painstakingly crafted by an elderly grandmother sitting in a rocking chair. In the evening. By the light of a fire. In a log cabin. To people fond of this vision of the quilter and her work, the “good old days” were the best, the most authentic
days of all.
I don’t want to sound like a scold, but it would be interesting to stick those folks in a time machine and see how they fared in those drafty old cabins, smacking bugs and mice out of the larder, fighting with Papa’s old shotgun to get it to work in case the family dirt farm was attacked from all sides by bandits, wolverines, etc.
It would also be interesting to see how much the “good old days” folks would enjoy using “good old tools.” (A cauldron great for rendering fat and taking baths! A hatchet that doubles as a toothpick!)
And when you look at the “good old tools” people used to make quilts in “the good old days,” you find pretty quickly things weren’t so romantic — and nowhere is this more apparent than when considering the iron.
The domestic irons of today are so wildly different — and astronomically better —than any iron that has come before, a look back to irons of yesteryear is almost a terrifying experience: They used that? All day? In a room without air conditioning?
Yes. Yes, they did.
This is the first in a series I’m calling “Brief History Lessons” from yours truly, The Quilt Scout. The way I figure, the more we know about where we come from, the better we understand and appreciate our heritage as quilters and quilt aficionados. It’s good to see how far we’ve come and how quilters have always embraced technology to help us do what we love.
Also, a lot of this stuff is just kind of hilarious, in a sad [iron] kind of way. Let’s get started.
1. A Box of Hot Rocks (China, 1st Century B.C.)
This “iron” was just a metal box or pan of hot rocks, apparently, which you’d plop on top of a textile in hopes it would eventually become flat-ish. Hey, at least you could do it sitting down. Watch your fingers.
An illustration from 1637 showing men in China smelting iron ore. Not pictured: Fun. (Image: Wikipedia.)
2. The Sad Iron (England, 17th Century England)
Sad, indeed. At least it works if the electricity goes out? (Photo: Wikipedia.)The word “sad” here is an olde-tymey word for “solid,” but boy, does “sad” fit the depressing prospect of pressing cloth with a heavy, blistering-hot, triangle-shaped wedge of metal. Sad irons — which, make no mistake, are still used in many places in the world today — are made of cast iron and are heated in a literal fire or on a stove. Watch your fingers.
3. Box Iron or “Slug” Iron (Various places, 18th Century)
A box or “slug” iron is a handled container, basically, with a little hinged door. Open
the lid and drop into the box hot coals or a volcano-hot metal brick or “slug” — check your model’s operating instructions — and enjoy a hot iron for at least five minutes. If you have fingers left after putting the slug in, watch ‘em.
I just don’t understand how everyone was not covered in soot all the time “in the good old days.” Maybe they were and they just didn’t put it into the paintings? (Image: Wikipedia.)
Interested in trying out a liquid fuel iron/taking your life in your hands? This model is currently available for sale on AntiqueBuyer.com. I won’t fight you for it. (Image: AntiqueBuyer.com.)4. Terrifying Irons Of Various Kinds (Late 19th Century, early 20th Century)
Around the turn of the last century, it was
fun and exciting to try to power all kinds of things (e.g., factories, cars, irons, etc.) with
gas, kerosene, whale blubber, ethanol, and many other horrifying chemicals and natural substances. Various museums and iron collections contain acetylene, or gasoline-powered irons! The mere sight of these
makes me fear for my fingers. And my face.
And the house.
5. Electric Iron (U.S., 1905)
We finally got some electricity around here! Hallelujah. The first electric iron, the “Hotpoint” was a revelation: a big, clunky, glorious revelation with an enormous cord. But when you have an iron that does not involve dirty coal or actual flames, who cares how big the cord is? And who needs fingers? (Fun fact: According to the 1945 Monthly Labor Review, 80 percent of American households had an electric iron by 1941.)
Horrible, heavy, short-corded and THE BEST THING EVER. (Photo: Wikipedia.)
6. Mangle (U.S., Mid-20th Century)
The mangle’s early models (think 16th century) were used for wringing water out of linens; in the ‘40s, the mangle came back as a pressing device. I’ve met many quilters over the years who remember having a mangle in the house and, by and large, have fond memories of feeding clothes and sheets through the enormous, sit-down contraption. Do I even need to say anything about the fingers on this one? The name “mangle” says it all, I think.
With a mangle, at least you could sit down after you did the floors and before you did the dusting, right ladies? (Photo: Wikipedia.)
7. The Modern-Day Iron (Currently in your sewing room)
Aren’t you glad we’re holding steady with our wireless options and our lightweight, steamy, thin-corded irons?
Some things never change, though, so, you know. Watch your fingers.
*Shout-out to Rose Kretsinger, who wrote the classic,“The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt” in 1935, and who probably had some help with the ironing.