While researching this topic, I came to one important conclusion – we don’t value enough the commodity of life we have nowadays. Did you ever question yourself how did people store perishable food back in the day? How did they wash dishes without a sink? How did they wash large amounts of laundry without a washing machine? Or how did they iron their clothes after washing them?
It seems silly to think about it, considering how easily we do those things nowadays, but it is something to discuss. What intrigues me the most, is when did people felt the need (for the first time) to smooth out their clothes or any other piece of fabric.
How on Earth did they do it when they didn’t have iron? Or did they? What kind of iron was that? Who and when invented this revolutionary device? So in this article, we are targeting ironing, and our main focus is antique irons value.
Short History Lesson About The Origin Of Ironing
There is no exact information about when people started pressing their clothes to become smooth. However, we do know that the Chinese were the first ones who used hot metal for ironing. A thousand years ago they used metal pans filled with hot coals and rocks to press over a stretched cloth. Imagine how much labor and strength this required.
At that same time, people in Northern Europe mainly used wood, stones, or glass to smooth out their clothes. These methods were in use until the mid-19th century, even after the blacksmiths started to forge smoothing irons.
What is the difference between antique and vintage irons?
From the side of collectors, it is crucial to know which models are classified as vintage and which are antique. The main difference is price and value. This does not mean that vintage irons aren’t valuable, but they can rarely achieve the price tag of antique ones.
Antique irons are the ones manufactured from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, while vintage irons are manufactured from 1918 to 1978. To make it more clear to you antique irons are linen smoothers, flat irons, charcoal irons, goose irons, and vintage irons are the first models of electric and steam irons. Let’s quickly go over all the different types of irons people used throughout history.
These were hand-sized pieces of glass or stones that people used to press their clothes. Use was rather simple, just rub the piece over a woven cloth to smooth it, polish it, or press in the folds. Well, it does sound simple, yet I still can’t figure out how these patents worked, but they did.
They were mostly made of dark glass with handles. The first ones were crafted during the Viking period. Its believed that these were used with smoothing boards. Some people assume that the water was used during the process to dampen linen. However, unlikely the smoothers were heated. Supposedly these were convenient for small jobs so most people continued using them even after the first iron was invented.
How did people press large items? These couldn’t be handled with press stones and glasses. In these cases, they used a mangle board and rolling pin to smooth out the fabric. This combination worked wonderfully. There were also simple versions of mechanical mangles. However, these were pretty expensive so mostly rich people had them.
They copied the regular method of pressing a flat surface across multiple rollers instead of a single pin. The box mangle was heavily padded with stones and the linen was placed on the cylinders underneath, and then spread under the rollers. Mangles with two rollers were mainly used for wringing water out of fabric. In most Victorian households this method was used to iron sheets and table linen, while clothes and smaller items were pressed with hot irons.
Flat irons or also known as sad irons
The first simple flat irons were forged in the late Middle Ages and they were also called sad irons. Flat irons were made of plain metal that you need to heat by a fire or on a stove before use.
In some other parts of Europe, different materials were used for making flat iron. For instance, in Italy, they were made of stone, and in France and Netherlands, materials like terracotta and earthenware were in use as well.
The first flat irons had metal handles, which was a bit of a problem since they would as well heat up so you need a thick rag for gripping. Later blacksmiths utilized wooden handles which would stay cool. In 1870 a detachable handle was patented in the US.
However, hot handles weren’t the only problem with flat irons. Iron tends to cool off pretty fast so to be effective you needed to use two irons simultaneously. While one is in use, the other one is heating up. Also, it was crucial to not overheat the iron to avoid burning through the fabric.
As you can see handling these irons was a science. Besides, these irons requested constant care. Since they were heated on fire and stoves the cleaning process was complex. To avoid rust sand-papering, greasing (beeswax), and polishing was necessary.
Box irons or also known as charcoal irons
However, with time blacksmiths figured out how to make a much more effective iron. The point was that if you make the base of your iron hollow inside you will have enough space to put hot burning coal in it. This way the iron will stay hot a bit longer.
The model was called box iron or charcoal iron and there were a few different variations of it. You’ll notice how each one has a hinged lid and air holes to allow coal to breathe and continuously burn and release the heat. Other variations had a funnel that kept the smoke away from the fabric.
More sophisticated models had shallow boxes with perfectly fitted inserts made of metal. Inserts were heated in a fire and inserted into the base instead of burning charcoal. This way your ironing was free of black coal stains. Also, in the case when lower temperatures were needed heated bricks replaced the charcoal. Some box irons had their own stands.
Out of all models of antique irons, charcoal iron is the most attractive among collectors. Even the models from the late 19th century are very popular. These designs experimented with heat-retaining inserts, gas jets, and reverse bases.
How To Identify An Antique Iron?
When you think about antique iron the first thing that comes to your mind is a flat, triangle-shaped piece of metal with a wooden handle and a top part that can be lifted. That is what charcoal iron looks like, however, not all antique irons look like that. There are many different shapes and features you should observe when trying to identify your antique iron.
You should carefully check for the following aspects:
- Examine the look and condition – Look closely at the exterior. Keep in mind that metal antique irons can be easily forged nowadays. So take a good look. Does it look old enough to you? Look for the cracks and traces of use. If it looks smooth and neat it is probably fake. Remember how we mentioned that these irons required sanding due to the rust? Look for the rust signs! Check which material was used for making handles.
- Look for the writings or brand marks – It is very important to look for initials, brand markings, or any other type of writing when trying to figure out the date of manufacturing. Thoroughly check the body, base, underneath, as well as neck and handle. The writings can mention the year of production, the weight, the name of the company, or the country of origin.
- Design – There are also some peculiar designs that will tell you the origin of the iron. The best examples are irons produced in China. These irons feature a dragon design to honor their culture.
- Design of the handle – Some antique irons are made with detachable handles while others have built-in handles. Detachable handles became popular because of their practicality. This way they can be easily cool down while at the same time, the base is heating up. If the handlebar is made of metal and built in the body of iron that is probably a very old and primitive model.
Are Antique Irons Valuable?
Antique irons are very valuable and sought after among collectors. Thereby these very old devices are profitable treasures for people who do not see them as collectibles. To determine the real value of an antique, you need to consider a few features and qualities.
That includes age, efficiency, design, type of iron used, components, and durability. Antique irons are very old historic artifacts that shouldn’t be overlooked since they symbolize the development of the human race.
Now that we got that clear, let’s talk about how valuable they are in terms of money.
List of most valuable antique irons on the market
17th Century “Adam and Eve” Repousse Iron
Year of production: Late 1700s or early 1800s
This really old and rare iron is crafted in the 17th century but the exact date wasn’t printed. The type of iron is a German box. These irons were heated up by transferring chunks of iron, stone, or, brick in flames and then inserting them in the case to heat the iron.
In most cases, box irons came in the set. The reason why is that these irons tend to cool off pretty fast so while you use one, the other one is heating up. Unfortunately, this iron doesn’t have its pair. However, considering its design, decorations, and craftsmanship it became very sought-after among collectors.
If you take a better look you’ll notice that the top part of the iron features precise carvings of Adam and Eve among the leaves. The iron is made of cast iron and comes with a decorative latch on the back side.
Rare Small Size German Box Iron
Year of production: 1800s
What makes German box irons special is their beautiful design. Overall German box irons were very popular back in the day considering they didn’t use coal, stones, or fuel for heating. While these materials are exceptional when you need to reach higher temperatures they often stain the fabric. German box irons used metal inserts that were placed in the iron after heating in the fire.
Also, German box irons reach and maintain lower temperatures that are more suitable for fragile fabrics that are prone to burn. The maintaining of these irons was effortless as well, and they were ready to use in a matter of minutes.
Revolving Alcohol Fuel Iron with 24 holes
Year of production: 1830s
In the late 1800s and early 1900s manufacturers found a new and creative way to make ironing easier. The point was that old methods of heating an iron (using charcoal or fire) were replaced with innovative methods – iron powered by gas, alcohol, whale oil, or any other liquid fuels.
What makes this method convenient is its ability to revolve. Meaning that multiple surfaces of the iron body can be turned over when the bottom face had cooled down. This is possible because the heat from fuel rises. The top surface is constantly heated while the bottom face is used.
However, this wouldn’t be possible without the latching mechanism that is attached to the handle. This mechanism allows the locking and unlocking of the body.
The fuel tank is quite different in design from other irons of this type. It is made from brass and vertically attached, and features a heat shield.
Rare Small Ornate Scottish Box Iron
Year of production:
One of the most sought-after models of antique irons is the Scottish box iron. Collectors are willing to pay a quite large amount of money to get one for their collection. What makes these irons so special is their unique and one-of-a-kind design and ultimate high-quality craftsmanship.
Almost all Scotissh box irons are hand built mostly by apprentices. You will notice how each one is built with a different technique and different levels of skill, focusing on different details and designs. Moreover, they come in different sizes and some are accompanied by trivets made from brass as well.
What is specific for Scottish box irons is their standard S or upright S post. This is exactly what gives them that unique graceful overall look. Most of these irons look like art pieces instead of the revolutionary device.
This particular model is crafted with the main focus on brass castings more than on technique. As you can see the body features exceptional casting work. The top part is perfectly fit, while the inside and the bottom have visible ribs. Handles are mainly carved out of wood and centrally positioned.
Howler Mfg. Co. / Montgomery, Alabama Revolving Liquid Fuel Alcohol Iron
Year of production: 1909
This particular model is very specific and unique, by now no other example was sold or registered anywhere else. The name and location of the manufacturer are imprinted on the cast iron heat shield which is attached to the handle. What is very innovative in this design is the heat shield that revolves with the handle when revolved protecting the handler completely.
As you can see from the name this iron uses alcohol as fuel. Alcohol as a fuel provides better and stronger heating, achieving much higher temperatures than coal, stones, or some other liquid fuels.
All liquid fuel irons feature a burner and tank for storing the fuel. The fuel tank is mounted on the back side of the iron which made ironing much more effective since the tank didn’t cover the fabric you were ironing.
Russell Patent “Lamp” Fuel Iron
Year of production: 1869
An extremely rare and unique type of iron is this lamp fuel iron. Not many of them were produced, and barely a few examples survived to this day considering how fragile they are. The lamp features a shoe-like shape and has a cylindrical hollow inside. A lamp has a circular opening at the back that fits perfectly on top of a kerosene lamp that was used for heating.
Even though this is an interesting idea it wasn’t really practical. The body was made from cast iron with a wooden handle attached to the side. Round holes on the upper side of iron have a function of a chimney to vent the gases and smoke.
Small Size Spanish Flat Iron
Year of production:
This iron is representative of one of the earliest metal flat irons that people used back in the day. These irons were forged by blacksmiths in the Middle Ages. To be able to use them you first need to heat them on an open fire or a stove. Most irons had metal handles, which was unfortunate since you had to grasp them with a thick fabric or glove.
However, even though they weren’t so practical they were always beautifully designed and carved. This one is made from brass iron and decorated with simple ribbed details alongside the body. On the other hand, what draws attention the most is the handle carved in the shape of a bird. Very unique, simple, and elegant.
Rare and Unusual Small Size French Box Iron
Year of production: 1800s
The French iron was initially made to heat up faster. There are two different kinds of French press iron. The ones that used Ethanol as a fuel for heating up, and then placed on the stove to speed up the heating process. The second type was regular box iron that was loaded with stone or brick inserts after they were heated on the stove or in the fire.
This particular iron used heated inserts. What makes it very attractive is the latch design. The body was made from cast iron while the handle was made from wood and featured brass caps. The door on the back features spring loaded gate mechanism.
Now the most interesting part – the latch. Most irons have a small discrete latch located on the back side of the iron. However, this French iron has a brass latch placed on top that is beautifully carved to look like a bird’s neck and head with an open beak.
Early 19th-century Small Size Iron Box
Year of production: 1800s
What we have here is a European box iron from the early 19th century. At that time most people used box irons that were heated up directly on the stove or fire or ones that were equipped with heatable inserts such as pieces of brick or stone. This model has an unusually pointed front part which makes it unique.
It is made from cast iron with a massive and very sturdy wooden handle. The size of the handle is crucial for antique irons. Keep in mind that the handler needs to apply a large amount of pressure while ironing so the handle must be sturdy.
On the back side of the iron, you’ll notice a hinge and a tiny door, this is where you load heated stone or brick pieces. Besides the unique heart shape, what makes this iron interesting for collectors is the brass overlay top part. The top part is beautifully decorated with carvings that look like birds.
#7 Thermometer Charcoal Iron
Year of production: 1889
This is one of the rarest models of antique iron ever made. Unfortunately, just a few of them survived. It is made from cast iron and it had one handy feature – a mercury thermometer. This thermometer is placed on top to let you how hot your iron is so you can avoid unpleasant situations like damaging your fabrics. It also comes with a hinged lid and air holes that allow airflow which encourages smoldering.
What makes this iron interesting for collectors besides its rarity is the fact it represents cutting-edge technology for that time. In that period liquid fuel and refining oils were barely in use, and there was not enough supply of whale oil. Charcoal was the only sustainable and affordable source of power.
Where Should One Look For An Antique Iron?
Considering that antique irons are not only valuable collectibles they are very beautiful as well, their popularity rises day by day. A lot of people acquire an antique iron for home decor without even knowing how valuable it is. Some people even buy them to actually use them. However, no matter what are your reasons for buying one there are a few options.
You can find them on online platforms such as eBay, Etsy, and Ruby Lane. But if you are looking for collector specimens that are worth much more you should check places like Live Auctioneers and Antique Buyer.com.
The second option is to check your local antique shops, flea markets, and garage sales. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how many true gems you can find there for a much more affordable price tag than you expect.
Antique Irons Value – Truth Or Myth?
Historic artifacts like these aren’t easy to find, however, they are worth every drop of effort you invest in the search since they are selling like crazy. You’ll find a lot of old irons on online platforms selling for a few bucks, but don’t be discouraged. Some new models can be sold or bought for a couple of hundred dollars, which isn’t cheap at all.
On the other hand, archaic pieces are the most valuable ones and they can easily earn you a few thousand dollars. Keep in mind that the older the item is the more desirable it will be to a collector. Happy hunting!