I was ironing the other day, which is noteworthy for a couple of reasons: 1) Hardly any clothing you buy these days needs to be ironed and 2) I don’t buy it if it does need to be ironed. But I have a few vintage favorites that need to be “touched up” by an iron on the collar, cuffs and buttonholes assuming being old enough to still need to be ironed counts as “vintage.” And of course Hubby has a few shirts that need to have the complete treatment with hot steam.
When I was a little kid, maybe 8 or 9, Mom let me iron Dad’s handkerchiefs, the pillowcases and tea towels, which of course didn’t need ironed, but acquainted me with the process. Thank heaven she didn’t iron the sheets, although years later when I was in college, I worked for a woman who ironed her sheets. That fast became my least favorite job. Fortunately, permanent press soon came into use and sheets were among the first items to use the process so Mrs. Martin, being one of those women who prided herself in being “modern” graduated to perma-press sheets and I got to paint her house instead … which is another story.
The ironing process was not as simple then as it is these days. Because nearly everything was cotton, everything required ironing. Steam irons had not been invented so we dampened the clothes using a sprinkler top stuck into a pop bottle. It was easy to get things too wet so sprinkling the clothes was not one of my jobs until I was a little older. The piece was then rolled neatly and stuck into the clothes basket to wait a little to spread the dampness evenly. In the summer if the ironing didn’t get finished in time the danger of mildew was ever present. I well remember opening the refrigerator and finding a small packet of dampened clothes wrapped in a towel in the bottom because Mom had been called to drive the truck or run to town for parts. Every farm wife knew that trick and it was no surprise to find a rolled up blouse or pair of slacks residing in the fridge. My family were farmers so we didn’t have too many white shirts to iron, but housedresses and aprons were abundant.
When I was really young, Grandma used an iron heated on the wood cookstove. We lived in the Pacific Northwest, one of the last places to get rural electricity. It was during WWII that the REA finally got to us and outlying farms were connected to the services that already served the towns of the area. Those big old irons were heavy and required exceptional skill to use. Usually the homemaker had at least two — one in use and one heating. As the one cooled, different items were pressed to take advantage of all the heat. So you might start with a cotton shirt, but end with a silken hanky before you switched irons. Grandma had a holder that she slipped off the used iron and onto the hot one that made it easier to manipulate. And they were heavy. In their afterlife many a flat iron was used as a doorstop or a weighted hobble to deter an animal from running away.
The steam iron was a real boon. Although cotton pieces were still usually dampened and dry ironed, jeans, wool articles and the eventual “miracle fabrics” took well to steam ironing. And it was faster. Small digression: remember the “jeans stretchers” made to fit into the legs of faded-denim jeans so as they dried, the crease was firm and they didn’t need as much ironing as usual? I think every mother of a teenaged boy in the late 50s, early 60s had at least one pair. They worked in pedal pushers, too.
Mom usually set the ironing board up in the kitchen to get the job done quickly between other chores before evening. In some of my other lives I ironed in front of the TV at night, leaving the ironing board up for a day or two. These days my ironing board is set up permanently in the basement. It gets used for a lot of things besides ironing, usually as a holder for things that don’t have another place. But, once in a while I DO need to remember its purpose.
And even though I hardly iron anymore, I find myself running through the steps I learned so long ago “sleeves first so the rest doesn’t get wrinkled when you do it; then the collar, buttonholes, and shoulders, finally the body . And don’t forget to hang it up!” Ironing was never one of my favorite chores. Like most house work it just needed to be done but nowadays, when so few items need it, I find a little pride in heating the iron and taking time to smooth the wrinkles in my favorite shirt, even if it IS 20 years old.
Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.