Dollies and possers
The finer clothes in a large household were the responsibility of the lady’s maid.
Strong muscles were also a necessity to push and pull the earliest box mangle back and forth with the leather straps or wooden handles. I would surmise that two laundry maids would be required for this task, one at each side. The weight of the box filled with stones, or sand, pressed household linens that were spread flat beneath the rollers, or else were wound about them.
The early 19th century saw a variety of newly invented mangles with a system of gears, wheels, and handles which were meant to lighten the laundry maid’s task by helping her to move this box. You could almost view it as an early rotary iron.
An advertisement stated it was “An important improvement in the construction of the common mangle ... by Mr. Baker, of Fore Street, London, by which the otherwise unwieldy heavy box was moved with great facility backwards and forwards, by a continuous motion of the handle in one direction; and by the addition of a fly wheel to equalize the motion, a great amount muscular exertion is saved to the individual working the machine.”
No-one can say exactly when people started to press cloth smooth, but we know that the Chinese were using pans filled with hot coals for the purpose more than a thousand years ago. Blacksmiths started making simple flat irons in the late Middle Ages, which continued to be in use for hundreds of years. I remember my grandma heating her flat irons on the hearth plate of her Lancashire range, warming one while she used the other. She had several, in fact, of various weights but all of them extremely heavy.
Flat irons were often called sad iron (or sadiron) an old word meaning solid. In Scotland people used gusing (or goosing) irons, the name coming from the goose-neck curve in the handle.
The charcoal or box iron had a hinged lid which you lifted so that you could fill the container with hot coals. The air holes kept the charcoal smouldering. They generally came with their own stand.
Then there were goffering, crimping and fluting irons which were meant for frilled cuffs and collars, and for the many ribbons, trimmings and intricate ruffles on a Victorian gown, which were, of course, a sign of status. No well-dressed infant could be seen out without her bonnet trimmed with Italian-ironed double frills.
Irons had to be kept immaculately clean and polished, and regularly greased to avoid rusting. The temperature had to be constantly checked otherwise the fabric could be scorched. My Gran used to spit on hers, not being a lady of quality. Some would hold it close to their cheek, a somewhat risky procedure described in The Old Curiosity Shop.
I, for one, am extremely grateful for the washing machine, tumble dryer, steam iron and all the other modern devices we so take for granted.
Friday, October 7, 2011
The history of washing and ironing
Born in Lancashire, Freda Lightfoot has been a teacher, bookseller and in a mad moment, a smallholder on the freezing fells of the Lake District where she tried her hand at the ‘good life’, kept sheep and hens, various orphaned cats and dogs, built drystone walls, planted a small wood and even learned how to make jam. She has now given up her thermals to build a house in an olive grove in Spain, where she produces her own olive oil and sits in the sun. She has published 45 novels including many bestselling family sagas and historical novels.