Myth #119: “Too many irons in the fire” refers to laundry and heating irons

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Susan Armstrong wrote: I enjoy your blog very much. I recently saw a video of Civil War (re-enactor) laundress explaining her work. She made a statement about the term “too many irons in the fire” originated during the Civil War, when the laundress was ironing and had too many “irons” heating up by the fire.
I have NEVER heard this about laundry-ironing.
Neither have I, Susan. I believe the expression originated in the blacksmith trade. I checked with master blacksmith Ken Schwarz of Colonial Williamsburg who explained the smith’s point of view. “Iron can be overheated and ‘burned,’ damaged beyond use. If a smith tries to increase productivity, he may put more than one bar into the fire in order to minimize the time waiting for a bar to heat to a working temperature. If the fire is fanned and the iron is not withdrawn before reaching the burning point, the attempt at increased production can actually lead to a reduction in efficiency and material loss. Therefore, too many irons in the fire is counterproductive, causing the smith to work frantically to try to stay ahead of the process.”   

The laundry interpretation seems illogical to me. A laundress traditionally used two irons (although Mrs. Pott’s sadirons with detachable handle, below, were sold in sets of three)–one heating on the stove while she ironed with the other. Why have “too many”? You can only use one at a time.  
For more about irons and ironing, see Myth # 95. 
pottsr

5 Responses to Myth #119: “Too many irons in the fire” refers to laundry and heating irons

  1. Shelley says:

    Wondering if you can help us? We operate the Joseph Priestley House Museum in Northumberland PA, where Dr. Priestley lived and worked after coming to America. My question is this: What would have a well in the back kitchen looked like in 1798? There is a hole in the floor now and we have it covered with a couple of boards and a piece of plexi glass for safety, but we are thinking that something must of been built around it and we can’t find anything visual to help us ? Thank you.

    Life is under no obligation to give us what we expect. Margaret Mitchell

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m no help with that question, Shelley, but I forwarded your request to two others who possibly can . . . Willie Graham and Jeff Klee, architectural historians at Colonial Williamsburg. If you don’t hear from either one within a week or so, you could send them an email at wgraham@cwf.org or jklee@cwf.org. Good luck.

  2. Brian Leehan says:

    My particular historical interests are the Civil War era and the American West of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and although a “city boy,” I always took an active interest in the history and life of the Cowboy. My understanding of the term “too many irons in the fire” has always been that it referred to the spring roundup and branding: a lot of cattle “outfits” would come together to separate-out the cattle that had been wintering on open range. Each outfit would brand their new calves, and there would be a lot of branding irons “in the fire.” I assume “too many irons in the fire” would refer to the chaos that could naturally occur with a lot of outfits trying to agree on who owned what, roping, holding and branding, etc.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of branding irons. I checked with the Oxford English Dictionary and learned that the earliest known written use of the phrase dates to 1549 (in England): “Put no more so many yrons in the fyre at ones.” Another intriguing mention in the OED is the one from 1624 from America’s own John Smith: “They that have many Irons int he fire, some must burne.” And another from 1751, “I had now several important irons in the fire, and all to be struck whilst hot.” Medieval Europeans did brand cattle, so the phrase may refer to that practice, but somehow, the blacksmith story seems more likely to me.

  3. Susan Armstrong says:

    Thank you for the post. It is interesting how we use adages, attributing them to everyday / common activities. Researching a term can tell you where it “originated” or what it is “attributed to”.

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