Did your mother used to own three or four cast iron ‘irons’, boat-shaped pieces of metal, with an integral handle on the top, all cast in one solid lump of metal? My Mum did; they were, as you’ll have guessed, even if your home didn’t possess any, to smooth out the wrinkles on sheets and shirts, hankies and socks — in fact virtually everything that was laundered every Monday.
Mum wouldn’t dream of leaving anything unironed, not even the stuff that nobody saw, like underpants and vests, it was a mid-week ritual carried out in almost every home, all over the Western world, starting with the lighting of one gas ring on the stove and placing a couple of irons in the flame to get hot enough to do their job.
When Mum thought the right temperature had been reached, she picked up a thick pad of cloth, kept nearby, which stayed in her hand to protect her from the heat of the iron. Don’t forget these units were cast in one piece, so the handle got just as hot as the rest of the tool — none of the insulated handles we are so accustomed to these days, and no automatic on/off switches to keep the temperature just right either.
The temperature was assessed by most housewives, by picking up the iron and either holding it near to their faces, to feel the radiation or in some houses, spitting on the upturned base of the iron to see how long it took to disappear. Mum used method ‘A’ in our house; she thought spitting was rather unladylike!
Those old cast iron units were surprisingly efficient at doing their job too, even though they were rather heavy to hold, being solid metal they held their heat well.
The one major drawback I can recall Mum complaining of was the problem when ironing starched materials, and in those days that meant most of them. Each item was sprinkled with a mixture of starch and water, and then left for a few minutes for the mixture to soak in to the various layers of cloth, and then she would commence her ironing. That’s when the problem made itself felt — you see, the ironing would dry out the water in the mixture and most of the starch remained in the cloth, giving it a crisp feel, like something brand new, (which was the whole idea), but a little of the starch would melt in the heat and be deposited on the base of the iron, forming a white cake that made it difficult to slide the iron about.
When this happened Mum had to stop her work, get a damp cloth, kept for the purpose, and wipe the irons bottom with it, removing the dried starch scum. This action naturally made the iron cool down faster, so that it had to be replaced on the gas stove and another one picked up — then the whole ritual could be started again.
Nowadays of course, we live in a totally different world. The irons are electric and heat themselves to the right temperature automatically. They can also be made to spray a little water on the garment, to make the process more efficient and starch is virtually not used at all today, most fabrics are basically plastic, and keep their texture and crispness without help and do not require ironing at all, let alone the addition of starch as well. Even if starch was to be used, the non-stick base of the modern iron would soon get rid of any scum build-up. About the only thing that requires ironing these days are bed-sheets, especially the cotton ones.
But tradition does die hard — my wife still insists on ironing my underwear and my handkerchiefs, no matter how much I try to stop her, and I have to admit, a nicely ironed pair of underpants is undeniably more comfortable than an unironed pair!