Streamlined Electric Irons

by Jay Raymond of Frenchtown, New Jersey

Collecting approach and scope

The collection began in the early 1980s with a small cache of irons found at a church rummage sale. Since then it has grown to number near 250, with 80 or more different manufacturers represented. When an iron is said to be early, late or otherwise described, this applies to the development of streamlined design as it is seen in irons. It does not necessarily apply to actual year(s) the iron was produced. Some manufacturers used the idea earlier than others and others abandoned it sooner. The development was not linear at every point.

This collection is nearly all from the USA, and what is said here is about irons from the U.S. Irons from other countries show that they each had their own appealing answers to what a streamlined iron looks like.

What is 'Streamlining'?

Henry Dreyfuss, the pioneering and respected US industrial designer, is said to have called streamlining cleanlining. One can see it by thinking of what can be done to minimize the wind resistance of an object. The leading edge is pointed and smoothed; all is curved and curved softly. Details are minimized. The object does not convey heaviness. It conveys lightness, speediness, simpleness, sleekness,  frugalness and the like. It is ironic that an Iron, a word conveying weight, should aspire to and appear non-weighty but it was as well suited to the idea as were train locomotives and graphics. (Later it would be learned that weight is virtually unnecessary for the chore of ironing wrinkled clothes: steam will enable fabric to straighten out almost by itself.)

The idea of streamlining and the materials, Bakelite, chromium plated steel and cast aluminum, were compatible. The materials could be used plastically, that is moldable, so that soft curves could be produced and very wide variations in designs could be achieved.

Electric irons and Streamlining

Early on, streamlined irons were smoother versions of early electrics: the bases were made with softer edges. See the Winpower for an early convert. Its handle is old style and the base is new style. The GE 149F84 successfully uses the new material Bakelite for its streamlined possibilities. Its base, though somewhat squared off, continues the line of the handle and so together a truly new (modern) look is seen. In fact, GE, called this iron The Moderne.

Later, the handles became a single piece extending to the cowl at front and rear. Most irons of this period were like this. Four first rate examples of this are the Erla F10, Montgomery Ward 24-DE-2669, General Mfg. Co and most famously, the Petipoint. At the end of the period the handle became completely integrated into the base: see the Westinghouse ID-72 as the prime example.

Then there are the irons that had a way unto themselves, and the Lady Dover 380 is one. Knapp- Monarch, who produced more variety in this field than any other manufacturer, used in this iron an unparalleled combination of multiple pieces of Bakelite, chrome bands, chrome leaves, color and texture. This, above a base used numerous times with completely different handles. See Knapp-Monarch's 470R and 19-504.

Some attempts were made to use wood, a material of the previous generation, as a 'plastic' material. The results were usually awkward and not as cleanlined. See the Selwyn Chief. A stunning exception to this is the Knapp-Monarch Steam King whose wood handle does not try beyond the wood's plasticity and achieves a wonderfully integrated and unique streamlined profile.

Streamlining and early Electric steam irons

Just as streamlining was enabled by new technology, so was its demise. The development of a steam iron that boiled one drop of water at a time made the steam iron practical and very popular. Thus, the need to store water brought on larger and more squared off bases, which were now functioned as tanks.

And the word tank can be used to see what happened to the sleek beauties of the thirties and forties. One iron solved this problem and managed to be one of the crowning achievements in streamlining, General Mills' Tru Heat Iron. Designed like no other iron, it stands out today both for its appearance and its current population. No other iron has survived in the numbers it has.

General Mills also took a unique approach to the steam challenge and produced a streamlined attachment for the iron that had a stainless (then later, black plastic) tank attached at the rear, like an outboard motor, to hold the water. Proctor also thought to attach a tank to their fourth and last generation Never Lift Model 990. The profile of this iron already is more of the following generation, but the translucent blue tank is clearly of the now fading streamlined generation.

In Conclusion

All in all, streamlining began about 1934 and was mostly over by 1950. About three of those years, during WWII, saw little domestic production. So there were about 14 years when the irons were arriving in this style. In that time, in the USA, a very large, diverse and mostly independent manufacturing base produced an amazing array of speedy, clean and shiny implements of household labor and yet the chore of ironing was still not loved.

✽ Jay Raymond's hardbound book Streamlined Irons is available for sale in the PITCA Store.

 See Jay Raymond's blog Vintage Electric Irons: Information and Musing on Antique and Vintage Electric Clothes Irons.