Too hot to handle – collecting vintage irons

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A "Sensible" iron with a detachable handle (right) was tagged $38. The unusually small sadiron (left) was $32.

“Oh for the carefree days of yesteryear when grandmother spent her days cheerfully ironing the all cotton clothes of grandfather and their 12 children.” Such a nostalgic portrait of the past can only be painted by someone who wasn’t there and has never ironed clothes. Ironing clothes was hot, hard work. I’m sure grandmother doesn’t miss this particular task in the least.

Today, with our synthetic, never-needs-ironing clothing we can look back on the scene of grandmother ironing with a sense of nostalgia. The pleasant memories aren’t so much of the task of ironing itself, but of the whole era when the world was quieter and moved at a slower pace.
The first irons (other than heated rocks) were developed by the Chinese in the first century B.C. They consisted of long-handled pans which contained smoldering charcoal. These first irons must have been thoroughly unpleasant to use. Many variations and improvements have been introduced over the centuries.

The first “modern” iron patent was given to Mary Ann B. Cook for a “polisher.” This was followed in 1871 by the first iron with a detachable handle, in 1874 by the first gas iron, and in 1882 by the first electric iron. In 1925 the first chrome-plated iron was produced by the Russell Electric Company and in 1927 the first adjustable-temperature iron was produced by the Liberty Gauge and Instrument Company. The year 1937 witnessed the introduction of the first steam iron in the U.S., produced by the Steem-Electric Co. The first steam travel iron was introduced by General Electric in 1953.

When most collectors think of antique irons the classic sadiron comes to mind. There are sadirons with detachable handles, charcoal irons, sleeve irons, alcohol irons, fluting irons (used to crimp cuffs, collars, and even petticoats), gasoline irons, electric irons, steam irons, and travel irons. Within each of these types are dozens, often hundreds, of varieties. In my travels researching this article I turned up enough irons that I could have assembled a considerable collection in a short time.

Old irons are not expensive. Basic one-piece sadirons can be found for $15 to $25. Irons with detachable handles can be had for $30. I have found fluting irons for as little as $25 and gas irons for about the same price. Many early electric irons are quite reasonable in price. I have found examples ranging from $10 to $50, depending on age and rarity. Several years ago, I purchased an early Universal travel iron made by Lander, Frary, & Clark of New Britain, Conn., for $1 at an auction. The iron had a cloth cord, so it’s more than 50 years old and in like new condition in its original travel case.

Rare examples, unusual sizes, and sets of irons in their original boxes can cost much more than indicated here. Shop around before making a purchase and get a feel for prices in your area. The values for irons have, for the most part, not been accurately determined and there is therefore a wide range of prices. A iron priced at $35 in one shop may be found for $20 in another.

Display is important. One of the best ways to display irons  is also the most simple: a small group of irons attractively arranged on a quilt or piece of cloth. Other collectors like to arrange theirs on bookshelves. Some line the tops of their kitchen cabinets. Still others display their old irons on vintage ironing boards. Unlike so many other collectibles, irons face few dangers while on display or in storage. The one big danger to avoid is moisture, many irons are susceptible to rust and other water damage. A lesser danger is direct sunlight. Any painted example will begin to fade if exposed to sunlight for too long. Collectors must also consider the dangers to themselves. Never plug in an electric iron if the cord is frayed or damaged, severe electrical shock can result. Care should be used even with vintage irons that appear to be in good repair.

There are several different collecting themes that the iron enthusiast can try. Some collectors focus on one type of iron, collecting only gas irons, sadirons, or early electric irons. Others like to collect an example of each type of iron. Still others look only for irons produced by a specific maker. Some collect by color. Another attractive theme is irons in graduated sizes, sadirons are a particularly good choice for this theme. There is a collecting theme to suit the interests of every iron collector.

One piece of good news for collectors is that very few irons have been reproduced. The only example I have found so far was a reproduction sadiron of such poor quality that it was obvious that it could never have actually been used. Collecting vintage irons is a hobby that is gaining new followers everyday. Keep your eyes open while making the rounds to antique shops, shows, and malls; you will be surprised at the wide variety of old irons that are out there to collect. Don’t forget to browse eBay, too. Shipping can be considerable on irons due to the weight, but the price may be worth it for an especially nice example.

Whether you decide to assemble a collection of vintage irons, or just purchase one or two for use or display, you’ll find them a nostalgic collectible that will transport you back to yesterday. Luckily, we don’t have to iron like our grandmother’s did. Collecting irons gives all the pleasure of the “good old days” with none of the work.

More Images:

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At top is an iron that is quite different from the common sadiron. This beautiful example is a coal iron and was priced at $75. At bottom is a Coleman fuel iron. This iron is especially attractive in its enameled blue. It was priced at $85.
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This Universal iron looks like new, but it probably dates to the 1920s or 30s. It is meant as a travel iron. I actually use this iron on those rare occasions when I need to iron something. Beware early irons with cloth cords. This one is in like-new condition, but many are frayed and dangerous. I purchased this iron years ago for $1, but a similar example today in such pristine condition would likely exceed $50.
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This tiny Dover sadiron was most likely a toy. Many irons under 4" are called salesman's samples, but most are not. I picked this iron up at an auction for $10. It was quite a bargain.

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