Imagine the day the lockdown is over and you are all set to go back to school. Happily, you pack your bag and keep your books ready. But before you hit the bed, you have one last task to do – keep your school uniform wrinkle-free for the next day. But wait, how will you smoothen the creases from your uniform? That’s when your eyes fall on the iron box quietly waiting in one corner of your room. If not for the iron box, would you have been able to wear crease-free clothes? Now think of the time when kings and queens wore heavily embroidered robes with precious stones and dyed in royal colours – but wrinkled! What methods would they have applied to get rid of those nasty creases?
Today, let’s visit the time way past our grandparents’ to learn how our ancestors managed to keep their clothes wrinkle-free.
It was sometime during the 1st century BC when the Chinese figured out the perfect combination of heat and pressure to remove wrinkles from their clothes. Unlike the rest of the world, the Chinese preferred wearing silk – a delicate material which can wrinkle easily and show sharp, unattractive creases. Soon the wealthy households started using metal pans filled with boiling water to press and smoothen their silk clothes.
In the 10th century, the Vikings from Scandinavia used irons made of glass. The heat from the glass transferred to the clothes and smoothed the wrinkles. This was called Sømglatter which meant ‘a linen smoother’. These glass irons had a mushroom-shaped smoother and a central handle to hold near a fire to warm up.
The Empire-era Romans (27 BC–476 AD) had two types of tools that functioned as the modern iron. One was a hand mangle – a flat metal paddle or a mallet (a hammer-like tool with a wooden head). The purpose of this mangle was to remove wrinkles from linen, or other clothes by beating it hard. It was mostly the wealthy who could afford a hand mangle as it would require a servant or a slave to do the ironing. The other tool was a prelum which was made of two flat pieces of wood, fastened together with wooden turn screws. The wrinkled cloth was placed between the boards and pressed by tightening the turn screws.
By the late Middle Ages (476 AD – 1453), blacksmiths started forging simple flat irons that consisted of a flat iron piece with a metal handle attached. To heat the iron, it was held on top of a fire or a stove and then pressed on the wrinkled clothes. These flat irons were also called sad irons or smoothing irons.
The sad in sad iron is an old word for solid, and in some context, it suggests something bigger and heavier than a flat iron. Some sad irons had wooden handles or detachable handles to keep them cool while the metal heats up.
Around the 15th century, an improvised version of the flat iron came into use. This type of iron had a hollow metal container with holes, a smooth base, and a handle. Heating elements like hot coals, bricks, and slugs (heated metal inserts) were kept inside the metal container. This eliminated the need to heat the iron frequently and saved a lot of time. Known as the box iron, charcoal box, or slug iron, it ensured that ironing soon became a household activity. Both the flat iron and the box iron remained the design of choice for centuries, making the task of removing creases less tedious.
In the late 1800s, gas became easily available in American households, and with that came in the gas iron. The earliest gas irons were patented in 1874. Houses had separate gas pipelines to which the gas irons were attached. The irons contained a burner to which gas flowed. The burner was lit with a match to heat the iron. Gas irons were helpful in terms of their weight (they were lighter than sad irons) but were also equally hazardous due to the leakage of the gas.
By the 1880s, the gas iron was replaced with the electric iron when electricity became extensively accessible in regular households in America. In 1882, Henry W. Seeley of New York received the patent for the initial development of the plug-in iron. His model had a built-in coil with a detachable wire. However, the problem with his model was that it took too long to heat the iron and cooled rapidly while in use.
In the early 20th century, this problem was solved with the introduction of electric cord iron boxes. Several improvements were made throughout the century. By the 1920s, thermostat equipped irons were introduced to control the level of heat in the iron.
During the 20th century, Thomas Sears invented the first steam iron. Steam made it easier to smoothen the dry and stiff fabric. Before the steam iron, people would sprinkle water on the cloth to iron easily. The steam iron added a water tank to create water vapour which then could be sprinkled on the clothes through a small hole. Although it initially had a problem with easily rusting plates, it was soon corrected with the development of an aluminium alloy and was further improved by adding a non-stick coating. By the 1940s, the steam iron became a household phenomenon and is still used today.
Surely, the iron box has come a long way since metal pans filled with water and glass irons. Today, we can’t even imagine wearing creased and wrinkled outfits.
That was the history of the evolution of iron boxes. What do you feel would be the next phase in the evolution of the iron box? Do let us know in the comments below.
Books are Tanaya Goswami’s first love and cheesecakes come a close second. Talking about movies, music, calligraphy, politics, and Elon Musk will get you listed under the friends’ section of her diary. Ever since moving on from her job as an English lecturer, she spends her time at BYJU’S crafting stories filled with emotion and sprinkled with sarcasm. Outside of work, she’s either learning something new (French, most recently!) or is curled up with a book and a cup of coffee. She firmly believes that discovering what you don’t know is the key to knowledge and is constantly working towards improving herself. Drop in a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you liked her stories, have something nice to say, or if you have compelling ideas to share!
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