Let’s Talk Rusty Iron

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Left: Putting a polka dot dress through the wringer and into a rinse tub. (Farm Journal, October 1940.)
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Above: A gasoline-burning iron for those without electricity. Flat irons, often called sad irons, came in sets of three. While one was being used, the other two were heating on top of the stove. There was usually a single handle that could be easily attached and detached from the iron bases. (Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog, Winter 1930-31.)Below: A new, shiny Wardway Gyrator electric washing machine from the Winter, 1930-31 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog. The machine had an “improved agitator” and a “lifetime copper tub.” Expensive at $74.50, the Wardway could be bought for $5 down and $7.50 a month.
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Left: Keeping the kitchen stove well-fired on a hot summer day in order to heat the sad irons was murder on the housewife. (Farm Journal, April 1940.)
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Below: An ad from the turn of the last century for a double-duty washing machine. (Farm Implement News, Dec. 14, 1899.)

Early laundry processes defined by grueling labor

This doesn’t have much to do with Rusty Iron,
but it’s been a while since I’ve written anything for my faithful
lady readers.

I have a 1920 book called Farm Economy, a Cyclopedia of
Agriculture for the Practical Farmer and His Family
, with a
section titled “A Special Department on Labor Saving Methods for
the Housewife.” The section starts by pointing out that many
improved implements and methods were routinely used by the farmer
to ease his labor, but that his home, “which exceeds the field in
importance,” had not received as much attention.

In 1925 in Ohio, for example, just one in five farms had
electricity, and 70 percent of those had their own light plants.
Only one in seven Ohio farm homes had running water, while one in
nine had a washing machine and a few more had an electric iron. One
in three had a gasoline engine, but it’s not recorded how many of
those were available to the farm wife.

Along with many kitchen and cooking suggestions in the book are
laundry hints that will sound strange to modern women raised on
automatic washers and dryers, and may bring back not-sofond
memories for ladies of a “certain age.”

The book recommends a separate room for the laundry, if
possible, with running water and all necessary supplies. The author
notes that small gasoline engines work well for running the washing
machine, pumping water, churning, or turning the cream separator,
and says every farm woman should have the use of one.

Power washing machines with a wringer attached are described as
being very satisfactory. “With such a washer, clothes may be
washed, rinsed and wrung by the machine. It’s only necessary to
starch and hang up clothes by hand. If it’s impossible to have a
power washer, at least have a hand washing machine, as they are far
ahead of the wash board.”

Another hint: “A square clothes stick is more satisfactory than
a round one, as the clothes can’t turn on it.” To wash fine laces,
the housewife was told to ” … first baste them to a piece of
flannel. Soak for 10 hours in soapy water, then squeeze suds
through lace. Rinse several times and squeeze dry. Tack flannel to
a board to dry. When dry, remove basting threads.”

Women were advised to “Hang colored clothing on the line wrong
side out to prevent the sun from fading them” and, “Before hanging
out clothes in the winter, rub the hands well with flour or
cornstarch and the hands won’t get cold as soon.”

It was suggested that ironing would be much easier if the
clothes were dampened and tightly rolled and allowed to stand
overnight, although care had to be taken in summer as dampened
clothes mildewed quickly in hot weather. A clothes sprinkler could
be made from a milk bottle by placing a large cork in the neck and
inserting a garden sprinkler head into the cork.

The author recommended the old flat irons “that have been used
for years (are) the best kind, and should not be too heavy. It’s
best to have irons of various weights; a very heavy one for
pressing, lighter ones for ordinary ironing, and a narrow pointed
one for sleeves and fine work.” If a tin pan was placed over the
flat irons on the stove, they would heat much sooner. And, “Your
iron won’t stick if you add one tablespoon of salt to one-half
gallon of starch, or if you put one tablespoon of kerosene into the
cold starch. These give a pretty gloss.”

As most farms didn’t have electricity, irons that burned
denatured alcohol or gasoline were said to make ironing much
easier, ” … especially during hot weather, when ironing is a

Also, during the hot months women were advised to “do as little
ironing as possible. Hand, dish and bath towels, underwear,
stockings and washcloths may be straightened and folded without
ironing. Change the bed sheets on wash day and put the sheets back
on the bed without ironing.”

A few other interesting tips:

“To remove spots on carpets, spread dry buckwheat flour on the
carpet and allow to stand for a day before sweeping up.

“White or light-colored felt hats can be cleaned by rubbing with

“To clean feathers, place in one-half pint of gasoline mixed
with 4 tablespoons of flour and let stand for 10 minutes. Rinse in
clear gasoline and leave stand outside until all fumes are gone.
Hold over stove a few minutes to add life to the feather. Curl over
the edge of a silver knife.”

Doing laundry wasn’t much fun for our mothers and grandmothers.
There was water to pump, heat and carry, and then empty when done.
Baskets of heavy, wet clothes had to be lugged outside and hung on
the line, an especially miserable job in the winter. One woman
wrote, in 1916, of “(standing) ankle deep in slush and (trying) to
pin a sock onto a bobbing clothesline, while the icy wind shrieked
at (her) back and a dripping sheet slapped (her) in the face.” A
farm paper editor of long ago advised his readers: “If you love
your wife you will shovel a path for her thru the snow beneath the
clothesline.” Reminds me of the fellow who bought his wife a light
ax so she wouldn’t get so tired from chopping wood … and then
wondered why she wasn’t grateful!

Well, are any of you ladies ready to go back to the “Good Old

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He
now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements
and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at

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