What did the early Roman, Viking, and Chinese versions of the clothes iron look like? Did these serve another purpose besides pressing the cloth?

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Before the Romans, the Greeks in about 400 B.C. had a cloth ironing tool that was called a goffering iron , made of iron, and that was used to create pleats on linen garments. Looking like a rolling pin, the goffering iron was heated in fire before use. Linen and...

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Before the Romans, the Greeks in about 400 B.C. had a cloth ironing tool that was called a goffering iron, made of iron, and that was used to create pleats on linen garments. Looking like a rolling pin, the goffering iron was heated in fire before use. Linen and cotton, made from reed fibers and cotton fibers, wrinkle easily and heavily so a means of keeping the cloth smooth and straight was necessary--for those who could afford the labor, either slave or servant, to perform the arduous task of ironing--for civilizations that wove their cloth from these fibers, as did both the Greeks and Romans. 

Roman, Chinese and Viking Clothing Irons

Empire-era Romans had several tools to perform wrinkle removing functions, for example, the hand mangle and the prelum.

Hand mangle: A flat metal paddle or mallet [mallet: a hammerlike tool with a head commonly of wood but occasionally of rawhide, plastic, etc., used for ... striking a surface (Random House Dictionary)], the hand mangle was used to beat the wrinkles from the linen or other cloth; this also was arduous labor performed by slaves or servants.

Prelum: Similar in principle to a contemporary clothes press, the prelum was made of two pieces of wood fastened together with wooden turnscrews. Wrinkled cloth was placed between the two wooden pieces; the pressure exerted by the tightening turnscrews smoothed the wrinkles from the cloth.

The ancient Chinese civilization also had several tools for removing wrinkles from cloth. Silk was (and still is) an important cloth in the Chinese civilization. Like linen and cotton, silk wrinkles easily and holds its wrinkles making sharp, unattractive creases. Unlike linen and cotton, however, silk is very delicate and cannot tolerate high heats from an ironing tool without being damaged. One of the most interesting wrinkle smoothing tools used by the ancient Chinese was the pan iron. The unique shape of the pan iron made it well designed for application to silk. Looking something like a coal scoop, with a long hollow, flat-sided compartment and a handle, the pan iron, filled with hot coal or hot sand, was delicately moved, flat side downward, across cloth to remove wrinkles. The gentle movement and the diffused heat--especially well diffused from the hot sand--protected delicate cloth like silk from damaging pressure and excessive heat.

Later, around 900 A.D., or the tenth century, the Vikings had glass irons: glass, made with heat, was used by the Vikings to transfer heat to cloth to smooth wrinkles. Called a Sømglatter, which we translate as "linen smoother," the Vikings used this glass tool, which was shaped rather like a mushroom, having a rounded, domed head and a central handle, to smooth wrinkles from linen. The rounded, domed portion was heated over steam and moved over linen. Along with smoothing linen, the Sømglatter was also used to press pleats into the cloth for decoration.

Purposes of Primitive Irons

Irons served several purposes for the Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Vikings. The primary purpose was to smooth wrinkles from cloth fabric that tended to wrinkle and hold the wrinkles deeply or sharply. Heat was and is needed to remove these kinds of wrinkles from cloth and garments. A secondary purpose was adornment with pleats that were added as a decoration and to add interesting movement to the flow of the fabric. More subtle purposes, though not less important ones, related to health and hygiene. The high heat from primitive irons killed parasites, e.g., fleas and mites, and bacteria both of which can breed in clothing once introduced through contact with the environment, and eliminated mildew, which can grow on cloth in especially damp climates with hot humid air or cold, wintery air.

Modern Irons

1. Flatiron -- 1300s
In Europe by the 1300s, the flatiron was a flat piece of iron with a metal handle held onto with the help of a protective cloth. Another protective cloth was placed between the garment and the iron to prevent the soot that built up on the iron, which was heated in the fire, would not be transferred from the iron to the cloth. 

2. Hot box iron -- 1400s
In Europe by the fifteenth century, the hot box iron was an improvement over the flatiron. The hot box was a hollow metal box into which hot coals, bricks, heated metal inserts (called slugs) were placed. The hot box had a smooth, flat bottom and a metal handle. Since the heat source was contained within the hot box, the need for the protective cloth over the garment was eliminated; the protector was previously needed because the flatiron picked up soot as it was heated in the fire.

3. Cast iron iron, also called sad iron -- 1800s
In Europe by the nineteenth century when cast iron was invented. Some of the problems with flatirons were solved by the implementation of cast iron in clothing irons. Cast iron stoves could be used for heating the earlier form of iron, the flatirons, with the problem of soot being transferred eliminated. These cast iron clothing irons were also called "sad irons" because they were so heavy, thus hard to use, weighing 15 pounds or 5.6 kilograms. While cast iron was easier to heat, it had a significant problem because cast iron stores heat unevenly, making wrinkle smoothing more difficult.

4. Cast iron iron, American Mary Potts -- 1870
In America in the late nineteenth century, Mary Potts innovated improvements to the "sad iron" (cast iron iron) by using plaster of Paris to correct the problem of uneven heating. Devising a cardboard mold filled with plaster of Paris (a quick-setting gypsum plaster used since ancient times; also manufactured near Paris), Potts placed plaster around the sad iron's body. Removing the mold, the plaster of Paris allowed more even distribution of heat throughout the cast iron (similar to ceramic enameled cast iron cookware of today). Potts also invented a spring loaded, detachable wooden handle for the sad iron to guard against burns.

5. Gas iron / Fueled irons -- 1874
Gas irons came into existence at the end of the nineteenth century. The earliest ones were patented in 1874. The body of the iron contained a burner to which the gas flowed. When the gas burner was lit with a match, the iron body heated up. The gas iron was lighter than earlier irons. There were other fuels used for fueled irons that were heated with oil, gasoline, paraffin, along with other fuels.

6. Electric iron -- 1882
The electric iron was invented in the 1880s, with the first patented by Henry W. Seeley in 1882. The electric iron hooked up to an electrical source through detachable wires; it did not have cord. Electricity stimulated the iron's internal coils that retained heat as it was heated on a stand. The electric iron was slow to heat and quick to cool, both of which were disadvantages.

7. Electric iron with cord -- 1903
Irons with electric cords directly attached to the iron were innovated in 1903. Earl Richardson invented a new style of sole plate, which is the bottom, flat part of an electric iron that is made of metal and does the actual pressing, and improved how and where irons were heated. His innovation was that his iron had more heat in the tip than in the center thus was known as the Hotpoint.

8. Automatic thermostat heat control -- 1920
An automatic heat control thermostat made of pure silver improved the iron with cord through an invention by Joseph Myers. Thermostats soon became accessories on all irons. The cordless electric iron, innovated in 1922, was not popular.

9. Steam iron -- 1926
The steam iron, a popular form of contemporary iron, was developed by the Eldec Company. Before the steam iron, clothing had to be ironed while it was damp. Steam irons incorporated water tanks that heat water to the evaporation phase, then allow it to be applied to the cloth as spray pressed through small holes in the sole plate of the iron. The steam iron finally became popular in 1940s.

10. Aluminum alloy -- 1938
Sole plates made of iron and steel tended to rust especially around the spray-holes of steam irons. Edward Schreyer solved the problem of rusting sole plates in 1938 by developing an aluminum alloy that did not rust or leak.

11. Contemporary irons and Nonstick sole plate -- 1995
Irons that could be set for steam or dry ironing were innovated in the 1950s. The first iron with automatic shut off was introduced in 1984. Contemporary iorns have plastic bodies, aluminum alloy, nonstick surface, sole plates with more steam holes and whip holds for elevating electric cords. In 1996 about fourteen million irons, boasting a variety of steam and thermostat features were sold in the United States alone. [It is important to note that aluminum and nonstick materials are known environmental toxins that expel more toxic molecules as they are heated, making contemporary irons environmental hazards.]

The Manufacturing Process

The component parts of the contemporary iron, the sole plate, the thermostat, the body housing, the water tank, the handle (unless incorporated in the body), the whip, and the cord, are manufactured in separate processing lines then assembled at the end before packaging and shipping for distribution.

Quality Control

Initially, all raw materials are checked for quality. Raw materials include plastic resins, aluminum ingots, steel sheets. Components for the spring for the thermostat, the cord and the plug are outsourced to other companies with specialized equipment. Plastic resins form the water tank, the handle and the housing body. Metals form the sole plate and thermostat.

There are three steps to quality control that are initiated during assembly. (1) During assembly a quality control worker removes a random iron, disassembles it and inspects it for errors. (2) If an error is found, the whole batch is inspected iron by iron for errors, and all errors are corrected as necessary. (3) After assembly electrical control workers inspect all irons for electrical functionality and water integrity. All by-products and waste of plastic and metal are reused or recycled where possible.

[Images attachedSømglatter, linen smother in the collection of Stewartry Museum; whale bone ironing board in the collection of University of Bergen Museum; two gas fueled irons.]

Source: Annette Petruso. "Clothes Iron." How Products are Made. Ed. Stacey L. Blachford. Vol. 6. Gale Cengage, 2002.

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