Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

Library of Dressmaking from the Interwar Period Part 2


For my second installment of my series from the 1920s book, “The Care of Clothing”,  I’m focusing on the home laundering chapter and in particular the sections on ironing.


All the different types of iron are shown in the book. They range from stove-heated flat irons still in use in the early twentieth century to the relatively modern electric iron which is included in the book. The first commercially successful electric iron, the Hotpoint Iron was launched in 1905 [1]. Ironing with a stove-heated iron would have meant ironing near a hot stove or going back and forth to exchange a cold iron for a hot one. Stove-heated irons actually sold in threes to allow the user to change the iron frequently.


Stove irons (figure 14) and a gas iron (figure 15)

In the author’s words, “stove-heated irons can do the work efficiently, but cannot bring the comfort and ease to an ironer that a self-heating iron can”. There were also gas irons and charcoal filled irons. Although self-heating, the safety measures in the book are rather disturbing – with a gas iron you “should be beware of drafts that may fan the flame when a gas iron is in use” and with a charcoal iron there are “unpleasant fumes and the fire is dangerous and soot-giving if fanned the wrong way.” Are we talking carbon monoxide emissions if the combustion isn’t complete? I can’t imagine how much an improvement an electric iron would have been!


An electric iron (figure 16) and a narrow iron suited for fine work (figure 17)


In today’s throwaway society it is often hard to imagine just how much time and effort our forebears invested in maintaining and customising their household appliances. There are some very interesting tips in the ironing section like creating a deep pocket from muslin at the side of the iron to prevent larger items, such as tablecloths from draping on the floor and lots of advise about cleaning the surface of the iron. The author suggests keeping a piece of beeswax to rub on the iron to prevent it sticking. Apparently, if an iron becomes rusty of rough on its surface, it can be cleaned and smoothed by sprinkling coarse salt on a board and rubbing the hot iron over it repeatedly. Although along with these pearls of wisdom, there’s always a piece of advice that looks alarming in hindsight. How about this one – “it is advisable to cut a piece of sheet asbestos to fit the broader end of the ironing board and fasten the edges down with thumb-tacks”. Really, advisable?


This is an advertisement for an asbestos-lined clothes iron from 1906. [2]

 The book really excels though in providing age-old advice. Here’s how to fold a man’s shirt – “Iron first the parts of garments that will hang off the board when the rest is being ironed. For example, in ironing a man’s shirt or a blouse, iron the collar and cuffs first, then sleeves, then the back and finally the front. Ironing the front of garments last helps to produce a better appearance in the finished work.”


I hope you find these insights into domestic history interesting. When I read about housework in bygone days I’m always grateful that I live in the twenty-first century!

[1] Old and Interesting: Early electric irons

[2] Wikipedia: Asbestos

Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

3 thoughts on “Library of Dressmaking from the Interwar Period Part 2

  1. Laundry and ironing are my favourite chores but I doubt they would have been back in the times you’re reviewing. Flat irons sound like hard work and gas irons positively terrifying.
    My late father-in-law gave me a paraffin iron from the 1950s as a curiosity (he didn’t expect me to use it!!!)- I passed it on to the local museum..

  2. Your post reminded me of my grandmother’s flat iron that was heated on the gas stove and also of my mother refusing to iron my father’s shirt tails since they were always tucked into his trousers and therefore creased anyway!

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