Revisited Myth # 119: “Too many irons in the fire’ refers to ironing and laundry.

April 30, 2017
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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 If the fire is fanned and the iron is not withdrawn before reaching the burning point, the attempt at increased production can actually lead to a reduction in efficiency and material loss.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. 
  1. Previous Comments:
    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 the blacksmith story seems more likely to me.

  2. 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”.


Myth # 95: They are called “sadirons” because ironing was such a hated chore that any woman would be sad to iron.

September 8, 2012

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. 


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