The Iron As Technological Art Object: Part II
When I was a young girl, I used to watch my mother at her ironing board. There was always a lot of ironing to be done. She kept a big clear plastic bag of clothes waiting their turn at the ironing board, and would sprinkle them with water – there was a special bottle for this sprinkling. I do not think we owned a steam iron when I was very young, and dampening the clothes in this manner was an attempt to help ease the wrinkles out during the ironing process.
Eventually I became old enough to assist in the never-ending ironing chores, and my mother let me practice on pillow cases, just as she did with my sisters. (My brothers, being boys, were exempt from such women’s work.) Pillow cases were easy, nice and rectangular; Dad’s white t-shirts were slightly more tricky, and from there on I graduated to jeans and then other fancier types of clothing.
Looking back on those years, I can’t believe how much time we spent ironing, and how many things we ironed that never feel the touch of an iron today. Pillow cases! White cotton undershirts! Who irons such things nowadays, even though modern irons with all their advanced technology and wonderfully controlled settings would make short work of what we labored over in decades past. I own an Oreck Cord-Free JP8100C Steam Iron which is lightweight and a breeze to use, and yet I ironed a total of two articles of clothing with it in the past two years.
I thought about these things the past week at my mother’s house, as I contemplated Jay Raymond’s gorgeously photographed book Streamlined Irons.
You may recall that I wrote briefly about this book back in March. Shortly after writing that post, both of my wishes came true: I got a review copy of the book. And, I got to see many of the irons that are in the book in the technological flesh, so to speak.
I live near Mr. Raymond and after contacting him, he was kind enough to invite me to his home, where many of the irons still sat in display cases, awaiting transport to the new owner who had bought his entire collection and financed the production of the book. I saw the iron that graces the book’s cover and it is just as beautiful in real life as the cover illustration suggests.
Since you cannot share my good fortune, you’ll have to make do with the book. But believe me, the photographs will more than do. The book’s photographers are James B. Abbott, an architectural photographer, and Jay Texter, who has specialized in automobile photography. These turn out to be a perfect combination of skill sets for photographing streamlined irons, a special subset in the history of irons. As Raymond notes in his preface, the audience he had in mind for his book is aesthetes, and “the essential ‘facts’ of the irons are in the photographs.”
The essential facts are stunning in their beauty, and you could enjoy the book merely as a coffee table picture book (check some of the sample pages here to see what I mean – especially the Novex-Siebert “Ultramatic” which is, indeed, sexy and splendid.) But Raymond also offers several short essays that give a history of electric irons in the U.S., an explanation of the aesthetics of streamlined irons, and an analysis with photos of twelve streamlined irons covering selected elements of streamlining. The latter section is a sweet and easy tutorial, and prepares one for appreciating the remainder of the book.
There is also an illustration, via eight irons, of the transition from early electric to streamlined irons. The only thing I would wish for on these two pages is to have the years of production for each of the irons added to the short description of each, so that one could have an appreciation of the flow of design through time. However, each iron can be looked up in the comprehensive index in the back of the book.
The delightfully readable essays pack a great deal of information into a short amount of text, and it is clear that the author is intimately familiar with his subject. As I read the essays, I wished to myself that I had been offered a history of technology course when I was an engineering student,
and that it had included something much like what was before me, at least for starters.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, we are informed, wrinkle-free clothes were only for the wealthy, who could afford the expensive irons and the servants to wield them. The production of cast iron put the cost of irons within reach of the poor. There was now an expectation that people would have well-pressed clothing. This of course made me think: if “people” were going to have well-pressed clothing, women were going to have to press those clothes. And this in turn put me in mind of the very interesting book More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, which details how the combination of “labor-saving devices” and raised expectations combined to create more work for mother.
An interesting tidbit: in 1871, in Iowa, Mary J. Potts invented a handle that could be detached while heating the base and reattached when ready to use, thus making ironing slightly less unpleasant. Just one more woman inventor you’ve never heard of, or at least that I had never heard of until this book. However, from Raymond’s accounting, it appears that the subsequent history of development of the electric iron, used primarily by women, was heavily dominated by men.
Electric irons, Raymond tells us, were such a marked improvement over what had been available that they practically sold themselves, even given the limited availability of electricity. I was astonished to learn how early the first electric iron appeared. The first U.S. patent for one was awarded in 1882, though no example of it survives. An 1890 issue of Scientific American reported the production of electric irons for use in a clothing factory. Twenty years later marks the first appearance of an electric iron in a Sears catalog, and in the intervening years a host of technological issues were being worked out. (That transition from clothing factory and SciAm report to Sears catalog is also telling – the transition of electric ironing from commercial concerns to a home-centered, more private pursuit. Yet more work for mother.)
Streamlining – the conscious use of design and style to sell the product – was the result of the confluence of two factors. One was market saturation, and the other was the Great Depression. When manufacturers of irons turned to design to sell more product, the design that was in the air at the time was streamlining, which was in vogue for everything. There are whole books written on streamlining, and one of the ones Raymond references is Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939, which I would love to have time to read. We might still be sailing our streamlined iron-ships happily across our cloth seas if it hadn’t been for the invention of steam ironing. The need to add bulky water reservoirs to irons led function to kill, or at least severely mutate, form in this instance.
The days of the streamlined irons are gone but you can still admire their beauty as preserved in this book. I wish that newer technological objects held as much aesthetic appeal for me as these older ones do but I don’t think they can, and it isn’t just nostalgia. Raymond tells us that in the 1930s and 40s, there were some 80 different makers of electric irons in business, most of them competing through design as well as function. I see the same thing in Mr. Z’s vintage microphone collection: a staggering array of styles and designs, and beautiful, beautiful forms. His modern Neumans make incredible recordings but, to my eye, they aren’t much to look at compared to the old mics. Market consolidation and the demands of efficiency of production push us to uniformity and dullness in design.
Interestingly, we are now in the midst of another Great…Recession, and consumer spending has seriously retracted. To what design element do marketers turn these days to sell their products? It isn’t streamlining, nor even really any appearance-related design issue. It’s the aesthetic of green, of eco-friendly. Just as stream-lined irons were designed to give the appearance of movement while standing still, many of today’s products are designed to give the appearance of green and eco-friendly while standing still in pretty much the same old big carbon footprint they’ve always had. We once had the fastest irons on the block, and now we’ll race to have just as many eco-friendly consumer goods as the Joneses!
If you love technology for technology’s sake, you will love this book. As I’ve said, it’s worth it for the photos alone, and these include many wonderful close-ups of design details on knobs and bodies, as well as a given iron photographed from many angles so as to better appreciate all its aesthetic qualities. We can thank Mr. Raymond’s unnamed benefactor for not just purchasing his collection and spiriting it away, but for funding the production of this book that allows us all to share in Mr. Raymond’s knowledge and the aesthetic pleasure of the streamlined iron.
The photos – snapshots, really – in this post are mine and should in no way be taken as representative of the quality of the amazing photography in the book. See here for examples.