Ironing a Hundred Years Ago

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, June 4, 1912:  Had most of the ironing to do today. Fixed over a hat by taking the ribbon off and putting another kind on. Wonder if I’ll wear it very much.

Source: Approved Methods for Home Laundering (1915)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Ironing was much more complex a hundred years ago than it is now.  The Muffly’s did not have electricity, so flat irons would have been heated on the wood or coal stove.

Here are abridged directions for ironing from a booklet called Approved Methods for Home Laundering published almost a hundred years ago by Proctor & Gamble:


Dampening or sprinkling is usually the last thing done at night.  Cover the table with a clean cloth, fill a basin with warm water, and use a clean whisk broom for sprinkling. Sprinkle each large piece, fold sides and ends into the middle. Lay small pieces together before rolling. Linen should be very damp. Pack all the rolls into the basket and cover tightly.


Ironing is the finish of good laundry work and the test of the laundress.

A laundress’s test for a hot iron is to hold it near her cheek for a few seconds. If too hot for this, it is too hot to use.  [Comment—whew, this sounds dangerous. I’m amazed it was considered an “approved method” back then.]

Another test is to touch the bottom of the iron with a wet finger; if it hisses, it is hot—the shorter the hiss, the hotter the iron. [Comment–this also sounds a little dangerous; though I can remember my mother doing it.]

Shake or stretch the article to be ironed into shape and place on board. Iron with the right hand from right to left, using the left hand to arrange the material.

First iron the part that will wrinkle least, leaving the plain, straight parts until the last. Ruffles and trimming should be ironed first.

Best results are attained when the iron follows the long warp thread of the material. The cloth should be left dry, especially bands, hems, and seams, or they will wrinkle.

For heavy materials use heavy irons; for thin materials, lighter irons, and for gathers, a narrow, pointed iron. Iron quickly with an iron hot, yet not hot enough to scorch. If the material becomes dry, dampen it with a soft cloth.

These directions were the most basic ironing directions. For detailed directions about how to starch and iron a collar, click here to see a previous post.


Was Grandma already remodeling the hat with the brown ribbon that she just got in April or it was it another older hat?

33 thoughts on “Ironing a Hundred Years Ago

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write the nice note. I’m glad you enjoy the blog. The early 1900s were an interesting time period.

  1. I didn’t realize that holding the iron near your cheek was a standard way to check to see if it is the right temperature. Years ago a coworker did that and got too close. He came into work for a few cays with a a triangular pattern on his cheek, complete with steam holes. You can imagine the comments he got.

    1. I was amazed that the Proctor and Gamble booklet recommended holding the iron up to your cheek to check the temperature. I’m even more amazed that someone actually did it. If we could get in a time machine, it would be interesting to see how someone who knew how to do this test (without injuring her- or himself) actually did it.

  2. Loved this post. Immediately my grandmothers “sad” irons came to mind. She had quite a collection, the big heavy ones, to medium weight and the tiny ones for the fine finishing touches for ruffles, and hard to get to places. I was intrigued with the gas iron, but was never allowed near it. My grandmother, with her preoccupation of starching and ironing, would never believe that my iron rarely comes out of the pantry. Such slovenly ways, what with un-ironed pillow cases, napkins—and shirts!

    1. Thank goodness that a slightly rumpled look is acceptable today. I don’t think that I’ve ironed a pillow case since I was a child.

    1. I occasionally pull out the iron when someone in my family wants to look particularly nice–but I try to avoid it whenever possible.

  3. It couldn’t have been much fun. She sounds a bit down about it. I like to iron, but admit, usually with some distraction: an old musical on TV like “Oklahoma” for instance. My mother taught me on pillow cases, first sprinkling and rolling up things and in the fridge until ready to be pressed. We used a little plastic bottle with holds in the lid, an updated version of your sprinkling brush. Environmentally speaking, I do wish plastic had never been invented!

    1. When I was young, my mother used to have a large plastic bag with a zipper that she put clothes in when she dampened them. I don’t think that she put it into the refrigerator.

  4. I don’t think I would have made it in the 1912 world. Ironing, a chore I didn’t learn to do well. I put more wrinkles in my garment when I iron. Gave it up, pull it from the dryer and go.

    1. It’s an art to know how to stretch and pull the cloth to avoid winkles. Easy care fabrics and dryers have make things so much easier.

    1. I wonder how they got the coals into the iron without leaving any black residue on the outside where it might get on the clothes.

      1. I’d guess tongs… I had a coal burning stove many years ago – it wouldn’t take more than one or two pieces to heat up a metal vessel. I recall the “iron” being very tall and ornate at the top of the vessel part.

    1. I bet that your grandmother was glad when she was able to transform those old irons from being tools that she used into decorations.

  5. This is a keeper! I do remember dampening and rolling the ironing in a towel. Only had electricity at the time. Argo starch. Well, I won’t even go there. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Starching is another whole topic in the Proctor and Gamble booklet! Based on the research that I’ve done for this blog, it seems like some things have changed a little over past 100 years; and, other things have changed a lot. How laundry was done is one of the things that has changed the most. I can barely imagine how complex it was to do laundry a hundred years ago. I get tired just reading the directions in the booklet.

  6. Don’t forget the blueing – or is it “bluing’! But that was in the laundry water not the ironing. Yes, I remember starching, sprinkling, rolling up and putting in the frig! I still do like to iron my good blouses but not much else. Oh, I have a nice collection of vintage “lunch clothes” and pillow cases and I do iron those, but I use spray starch!

    1. I can remember a great aunt who always used both blueing and old-fashioned starch on men’s shirts. The shirts looked absolutely wonderful after she ironed them.There’s nothing quite like the beautiful shade of white that is gotten with the use of blueing.

      But, I agree–Thank goodness for spray starch. 🙂

  7. You bring back some dreaded memories for me! Rolling the clothes in a towel as we sprinkled them, then stowing them in the fridge. Oh how we hated ironing…and we had electric irons, and then the steam irons. To this day I will not buy anything I have to iron. But I have one of those ancient irons – it looks like the “common iron” in your photo – here in my studio. I use it for a paper weight. It’s heavy!

    1. I try to avoid buying clothes that need ironing whenever possible–but somehow it seems like my family has a fair number of shirts and pants that need ironing. Sigh . . .

      It sounds like you found the perfect use for your old-fashioned iron.

  8. I remember if the clothes were left too many days in the refrigerator, they could mildew in there. Sometimes we stowed them in the freezer!

    I am wondering about the irons’ handles? Didn’t those heat up too? I seem to recall them as one solid piece of cast iron. But they were not in use by then, just decorations by the hearth.

    1. Good question–Some of the irons in the picture look like they may have had wooden handles which would have stayed cool. I have no idea how (or if) the metal handled ones stayed cool enough to hold without a hot pad or something..

  9. My mother used a glass pop bottle with a top with holes in it to sprinkle. Then she would roll them up but I don’t think she saved them overnight, although maybe she did because i do remember a mildew problem sometimes. Seems I remember her dipping things in liquid starch at some point too. This was all with an electric iron. I have never ironed anything we weren’t going to wear (pillow cases, sheets, etc.) and avoid that as much as possible.

    1. Yes, I can also remember people using pop bottles that had a special lid to sprinkle clothes when I was a child. Maybe that was a later innovation.

  10. When I was a child my mother would dampen and roll her clothes, ready to be ironed! She stopped doing this when she got her first steam iron. Ironing is my least enjoyed home chore, but it is interesting to read the old advise.

  11. I am usually one who says…I like the way things used to be. I think this is an exception! Holding the iron up to your cheek? Yikes! Great post!

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