A reader wrote: “Does anyone know the reason that irons were called “sad irons” in the 19th century? I’ve heard that ironing was a sad business and any woman who ironed would be sad.”
The dictionaries should be enough to debunk this myth. The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s give the word’s origins. The sadiron (today it is one word) is one type of iron. There are many others, developed for special uses, like goffering irons that pressed ruffles or specially shaped irons for sleeves. The OED says that the sadiron is a smoothing iron, solid and flat, as opposed to a box iron that is hollow and meant to hold coals (so it didn’t need to be heated and reheated on the stove). It says that the word sad once meant heavy or compact. Webster’s defines sadiron as a flatiron pointed at both ends and having a removable handle, and dates the term to 1738.
Evidently an American woman named Mrs. Potts invented a removable wooden handle in 1871 that made it easier to iron–it didn’t burn your hand (women used rags or potholders but still, those things must have been dangerously hot!), and you could put one sadiron on the stove to heat while you moved the handle to the hot one.
According to Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections at the White River Valley Museum:
In the first century BC, the Chinese became the first to apply heat in the process of pressing cloth, using long-handled metal pans filled with charcoal. Heated irons did not appear in the West until the 17th century. Since that time, a wide variety of irons have been developed in the attempt to find a solution to the problem of how to heat an iron efficiently — and protect both the user and the cloth against burns.
The sadiron — whose name derives from the Old English word “sald,” meaning solid — first appeared in the 17th century. The basic sadiron is a shaped piece of metal, with a polished base and attached metal handle. These irons were heated in front of an open fire or on a stove. The undesirable aspect of this, however, was that it heated the handle as well, so they had to be held with a potholder or thick glove. Sadirons were heavy, usually ranging from 5 to 9 pounds, and the weight contributed as much as the heat to the pressing process.
The first significant improvement of the sadiron was achieved by Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa. In 1870, Mrs. Potts was granted a patent for a sadiron pointed at both ends, making it handy to iron in both directions. The following year, Mrs. Potts endeared herself to housewives when she patented a sadiron with a detachable handle, thus allowing the iron to be heated without also heating the handle. These sadirons were sold in sets of 3, with a single handle.
One of the major drawbacks to all sadirons, however, was that they cooled off fairly rapidly, thus it was always necessary to have several irons so that one could always be re-heating. One solution to this problem was the “self-heating” irons.
The simplest of these was the charcoal iron, whose hollow interior could be filled with smoldering coals. In addition to being rather smoky, it was difficult to get a sufficient draft to keep the coals burning. For this reason, they were equipped with high, spout-like openings, so that the coals could be fanned by inserting a bellows, or by swinging the iron back and forth vigorously. In the late 1800s, other types of slef-heating irons were developed that used gasoline and alcohol as fuel, which was stored in small metal tanks at the back of the iron. The major drawback to these was the smell, and the tendency for them to “pop-off” suddenly when escaping fumes ignited, which not only frightened, but also singed the user.
The first electric iron was patented in 1882, but was far from an instant success, as most households lacked electricity — and those that did had power only at night to run lights. In addition, these early electric models were difficult to regulate. None had thermostats until the late 1920s.
So, as sad as many of us are to spend time ironing, that it not the origin of the word.