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An electric steam iron

A clothes iron (also flatiron, smoothing iron, or simply iron) is a small appliance that, when heated, is used to press clothes to remove wrinkles and unwanted creases. Domestic irons generally range in operating temperature from between 121 °C (250 °F) to 182 °C (360 °F). It is named for the metal (iron) of which the device was historically made, and the use of it is generally called ironing, the final step in the process of laundering clothes.

Ironing works by loosening the ties between the long chains of molecules that exist in polymer fiber materials. With the heat and the weight of the ironing plate, the fibers are stretched and the fabric maintains its new shape when cool. Some materials, such as cotton, require the use of water to loosen the intermolecular bonds.

History and development

A charcoal iron
Box iron (Minalin, Pampanga, Philippines Museum).
Flat iron stove
Typical English flat irons of the 1800s (Collection Tranby House, Australia). The shape was used by Victorian antiquarians to describe a style of medieval shield, termed by analogy heater shield.

Before the introduction of electricity, irons were heated by combustion, either in a fire or with some internal arrangement. An "electric flatiron" was invented by American Henry Seely White and patented on June 6, 1882.[1] It weighed almost 15 pounds (6.8 kg) and took a long time to heat. The UK Electricity Association is reported to have said that an electric iron with a carbon arc appeared in France in 1880, but this is considered doubtful.[2]

Two of the oldest sorts of iron were either containers filled with a burning substance, or solid lumps of metal which could be heated directly.

Metal pans filled with hot coals were used for smoothing fabrics in China in the 1st century BC.[3] A later design consisted of an iron box which could be filled with hot coals, which had to be periodically aerated by attaching a bellows. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were many irons in use that were heated by fuels such as kerosene, ethanol, whale oil, natural gas, carbide gas (acetylene, as with carbide lamps), or even gasoline. Some houses were equipped with a system of pipes for distributing natural gas or carbide gas to different rooms in order to operate appliances such as irons, in addition to lights. Despite the risk of fire, liquid-fuel irons were sold in U.S. rural areas up through World War II. In Kerala in India, burning coconut shells were used instead of charcoal, as they have a similar heating capacity. This method is still in use as a backup device, since power outages are frequent. Other box irons had heated metal inserts instead of hot coals.

From the 17th century, sadirons or sad irons (from Middle English "sad", meaning "solid", used in English through the 1800s[4]) began to be used. They were thick slabs of cast iron, triangular and with a handle, heated in a fire or on a stove. These were also called flat irons. A laundry worker would employ a cluster of solid irons that were heated from a single source: As the iron currently in use cooled down, it could be quickly replaced by a hot one.

In the industrialized world, these designs have been superseded by the electric iron, which uses resistive heating from an electric current. The hot plate, called the sole plate, is made of aluminium or stainless steel polished to be as smooth as possible; it is sometimes coated with a low-friction heat-resistant plastic to reduce friction below that of the metal plate. The heating element is controlled by a thermostat that switches the current on and off to maintain the selected temperature. The invention of the resistively heated electric iron is credited to Henry W. Seeley of New York City in 1882. In the same year an iron heated by a carbon arc was introduced in France, but was too dangerous to be successful. The early electric irons had no easy way to control their temperature, and the first thermostatically controlled electric iron appeared in the 1920s. The first commercially available electric steam iron was introduced in 1926 by a New York drying and cleaning company, Eldec, but was not a commercial success. The patent for an electric steam iron and dampener was issued to Max Skolnik of Chicago in 1934. In 1938, Skolnik granted the Steam-O-Matic Corporation of New York the exclusive right to manufacture steam-electric irons. This was the first steam iron to achieve any degree of popularity, and led the way to more widespread use of the electric steam iron during the 1940s and 1950s.

Types and names

Iron collection

Historically, irons have had several variations and have thus been called by many names:

The general name for a hand-held iron consisting simply of a handle and a solid, flat, metal base, and named for the flat ironing face used to smooth clothes.
Mentioned above, meaning "solid" or heavy iron, where the base is a solid block of metal, sometimes used to refer to irons with heavier bases than a typical "flatiron".
Mentioned above; the base is a container, into which hot coals or a metal brick or slug can be inserted to keep the iron heated. The ox-tongue iron is named for the particular shape of the insert, referred to as an ox-tongue slug.
A type of flat iron or sad iron named for the goose-like curve in its neck, and (in the case of "tailor's goose") its usage by tailors.
This type of iron, now obsolete, consists of a metal cylinder oriented horizontally on a stand. It was used to iron ruffs and collars.[6][7]


Proper ironing of clothes has proven to be an effective method to avoid infections like those caused by lice.[8]


A 1950s Morphy Richards electric iron with original box

Modern irons for home use can have the following features:


Clothes iron museum in Pereslavl

One of the world's larger collection of irons, comprising 1300 historical examples of irons from Germany and the rest of the world, is housed in Gochsheim Castle, near Karlsruhe, Germany.

Many ethnographical museums around the world have collections of irons. In Ukraine, for example, about 150 irons are the part of the exhibition of the Radomysl Castle in Ukraine.[9]

Ironing center

Ironing center with the separate tank visible

An ironing center or steam ironing station is a device consisting of a clothes iron and a separate steam-generating tank. By having a separate tank, the ironing unit can generate more steam than a conventional iron, making steam ironing faster. Such ironing facilities take longer to warm up than conventional irons, and cost more.

See also

Josephine Baker ironing (1956)


  1. ^ U.S. Patent 259,054
  2. ^ "Du Fer a Repasser" [The smoothing iron]. Musée du Lavage et du Repassage (Museum of Washing and Ironing) (in French). Retrieved 27 May 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d "History of ironing and irons - flat-irons, sad-irons, mangles". 2002-02-07. Archived from the original on 2013-11-27. Retrieved 2014-06-17.
  4. ^ OED
  5. ^ "Scots Dictionary" [gusing iron, a smoothing iron (s.Sc. 1825 Jam)]. Dictionaries of the Scots Language. Retrieved 2022-10-30.
  6. ^ "Goffering Irons, Victorian, Original | Object Lessons - Houses & Homes: Victorians". Object Lessons. Retrieved 2014-06-04.
  7. ^ "Crimping, fluting, goffering, Italian irons: smoothing frills, ruffles, puffed sleeves". Retrieved 2014-06-04.
  8. ^ Vector Control - Methods for Use by Individuals and Communities. © 1997, WHO (World Health Organization)
  9. ^ Богомолець. О. "Замок-музей Радомисль на Шляху Королів Via Regia". — Київ, 2013