Working with Flatirons

Wash day was a consuming task in frontier days when the only machines were a woman’s hands and arms and washtubs were filled with hand-drawn buckets of well water, instead of flowing through a network of pipes. White laundry such as bedding, shirts, and petticoats were boiled in soap-filled kettles over a fire. Colored garments were scrubbed on a corrugated washboard in separate tubs. Rinsing required yet more buckets of fresh water, and after the garments were sun dried the slow business of ironing began, with four or more cast iron flatirons. Why so many? Typically weighing four pounds and with either a metal or wooden handle, these utensils had to be heated on a grate over a banked fire but didn’t retain their heat for long, so a cooled flatiron had to be frequently exchanged with another, freshly heated one. Trivets were used as an iron rest while the garment was pulled or turned from side to side.  These steamy, labor-intensive activities lasted from sunrise to well after dark, and wise husbands learned to eat cold suppers on wash days, without grumbling. At some point in the 19th century, clothes irons with a compartment that held a supply of burning coals became available.



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