The Iron As Technological Art Object
Ironing is women’s work. And women’s work, we know, has nothing to do with engineering or technology. Irons are not technology; they are domestic appliances.
Collect a bunch of them, though, and they start looking like technological art objects. Then you can write a book about them.
Which is exactly what Jay Raymond has done. For the past 25 years, he’s been collecting vintage electric irons.
But not just any old electric irons. Raymond had a thing for streamlined irons, whose sleek, curvy designs make them look more like an art object than a domestic appliance.
Raymond, it turns out, lives practically in my backyard. How I wish I’d gotten to take a look at his collection before he sold it all off to the buyer who ultimately requested he write the book that is Streamlined Irons. There’s a photo exhibit, which isn’t the same as the real thing, but will have to do, at the Silicon Gallery at 139 N. Third St. in Philly until March 31st.
I’m thinking seriously about getting the book, if only for the essays on the history of the electric iron in the U.S. and on the subject of streamlining. This bit of the article whetted my appetite:
The concept known as streamlining arose in the 1930s out of the developing field of aerodynamics, which borrowed it from hydrodynamics. To streamline something referred to the effort to minimize drag, whether in water or air. “Eventually, nearly everything became subject to the idea that streamlining made it better, even though, in this case, it did nothing to make ironing easier or faster,” Raymond said.
But that design idea was also a marketing tool: “Iron sales plunged during the Great Depression, and manufacturers started using the appearance of a product to sell it,” Raymond said. Streamlined irons became the high-end item in a company’s product line, selling for as much as four times more than a more pedestrian-looking model.
Scores of American manufacturers, and quite a few European ones, worked overtime to embellish their irons with style flourishes. Some had swooping, winglike handles, others had headlights and rear fins that echoed the automobile. There were irons made of Bakelite, irons made of porcelain in lemon yellow or fire-engine red, and one remarkable line made of glass – the aforementioned Saunders Silver Streak, available in red, green, or blue.
While Raymond mostly focuses on the aesthetics of the irons, the book also offers a concise history of modern irons and ironing. The first electric irons, for example, were sold for home use in the 1890s. But they had to be plugged into a lighting fixture with an adaptor, and power companies supplied electricity only at night. It wasn’t until 1910 that electricity became available 24 hours a day and electric ironing began to take off.
Compared with using a charcoal iron (heated by a piece of smoky, burning charcoal inside) or a stove-heated iron, electric irons were marvelously easy to use. Even though they lacked thermostats and were frequently the cause of house fires, they sold like hotcakes. In 1922, more than three million electric irons were sold in the United States, out of an estimated population of 110 million.
Now wouldn’t it be great if they’d just send me a review copy? Seventy dollars seems a bit steep but I suppose it isn’t really when you consider all the color photographs included.