COLLECTING ANTIQUE IRONS
by Jimmy and Carol Walker © 1998
American country irons flourished from 1850 to 1950. The most common early irons were cast in one piece and weighed from five to seven pounds. In the nineteenth century, they were found in every country home and were heated on cast iron stoves. They are commonly called "flat" or "sad" irons. "Sad" is an archaic word meaning "dense" or "heavy".
Primitive irons are in a class by themselves, exuding an air of innocence. They were shaped by blacksmiths. They cost little when first made, but the best examples are marvelous finds for today's collector. An iron still revealing the mark of a hammer speaks the drama of its creation in every line. In country homes of the last century, people did their own work. Each person had a job. Ironing was part of the circle of life. Washing was on Monday. Tuesday was ironing day. While Mother did the family ironing, daughter was busy pressing dolls' clothes. Play was training for the child's adult responsibilities. Those toy irons are the focus of some of the most appealing collections. Little irons are four inches or less. Hundreds of different examples offer an opportunity for almost unlimited variety. They occupy a small space and are evocative of childhood innocence.
A collection of irons can be color-infused with ancillary washday items: soap packages, bluing bottles, starch boxes and various patent products. Clothes sprinkler bottles are another way to introduce a bright spot. The colorful bottles are found in a marvelous congregation of figural characters. They happily coexist with irons.
Antique irons of surprising beauty and diversity are still available at affordable prices. Places to look: flea markets, antique shows, dealers and garage sales. Wonderful finds are coming out of attics and basements. Sad irons may be the starting point of any collection, but learn the different types: charcoal, box, sleeve, polishers, fuel, fluters and others. After getting a core collection of common irons, acquire a hunger for rare and special irons. As an example, the Geneva rocking fluter patented in 1866 is usually an early acquisition. But, instead of being satisfied with the most common rocking fluter, add the more desirable Improved Geneva Fluter. Then look for other rocking fluters: The Star, The Lady Friend, Elgin, and The Erie with its detachable handle. Don't neglect the other types of fluters. The rolling fluter uses a roller instead of a rocker. Two common names are American Machine, Doty, Sundry and Shepard. The machine fluter accomplishes the same task with the turn of a crank. Collectors know the names of Knox, Osborne, American, Royal, Manville and Star.
The same in-depth spectrum can be realized with fuel irons, detachable handles, or any antique iron category. Look for the rare, different and the unusual. Even the basic sad iron has examples of fascinating attempts to keep the hand cool. Some handles were slotted for ventilation and air flow. Watch for spiral uprights, coiled handles, and folded uprights. These are rare and desirable. Combination irons, capable of doing more than one type of ironing job, reflect the nineteenth century's fascination with inventions and gadgets. They are found as sad/ fluters and charcoal /fluters. Watch for these hybrids. They are loved by collectors.
Gasoline and kerosene irons arrived early in this century and were welcomed because they were a vast improvement over earlier irons. Some Coleman irons, in particular, have beautiful colored porcelain bodies and matching grips. Early electric irons didn’t arrive in the country until rural electrification brought electric power outside the city. Sometimes salesmen would follow the newly-strung wires looking for customers. The oldest electric irons have porcelain connections and two-wire twisted cord.
Although lacking elegance and refinement, old-fashioned irons have a warmth of character making them collectible and lovable.
Jimmy and Carol Walker were long time members of MSICC and PITCA. They published the popular and authoritative periodical Iron Talk. It was their second career in iron collecting, one that came after years of being dealers in antique pressing irons. They were central figures in the international world of iron collecting. When they sold their collection at auction before the 2004 MSICC Annual Convention, it took three days to auction the 2400 lots and attendance hit an all time high of one hundred fifty people. Many collectors came from Europe to have a chance to own an iron with Walker provenance.
Carol Walker passed away in 2005 and Jimmy followed in 2017. They are greatly missed.
✽ A brief primer on the history and variety of old irons by Kevin McCartney.
PITCA members Kevin & Kate McCartney own and manage The Old Iron Inn Bed & Breakfast in Caribou, Maine. Their collection of irons and trivets is on display throughout the Inn. They also produce the popular YouTube series Kevin Talks Irons.