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Drudgery:  Washboard and Sad Irons


Monday: wash day.  The week would begin and the washboards, tubs, soap and if time permitted, the flat iron would emerge along with mother and her daughters who would start the day-long job.  The trappings of daily chores have become romanticized with what we thought were simpler times. Realistically, it was a hard life.   Today there are a few collectors who have a stash of washboards and irons to help remember those days when women were tied to the arduous job of being a homemaker.  Recently we were asked to appraise a mini-museum of washboards and irons from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Washboards were originally made of grooved wood and were invented in Scandinavia and Germany in the mid 17th century. Since there are so few of these boards left, they have an interest value of $25.00 to $80.00 depending on condition.  Noted by the US patent office the official date for the metal and wood board is February 9, 1833 for a fluted metal tin, iron, zink, or copper washboard that was introduced to help modernize laundry day.  Glass boards for fine silks and stockings followed almost sixty years later.

The collector searches for that elusive lost board that myth says is "worth $150.00 or more".  Good luck!  The 1835 boards are almost impossible to identify unless accompanied with provenance. By 1901 at the height of the industry, there were over forty American washboard companies all cranking out the "perfect machine for the modern woman."  Washboards are still being manufactured by the Columbus Washboard Company, the last remaining American producer who has sold over twenty-three million boards since 1895.  Approximately ninety million washboards have been produced which makes for a plentiful supply for the collector.  With so many, the average price for a vintage board is $12.00.  Indeed, metal washboards were surely a "great American invention".

The smoothing iron, flat iron, sad iron or the well-known Mary Potts iron with the detachable handles were all heated by gas flame or gas jets, stove plate heat, charcoal, "coal oil", or by some other innovative method. Heavy, physically demanding, at times dangerous, and if not used by an experienced user it could destroy the garment being pressed were some of the major concerns of the homemaker.  Most homes we enter have an antique sad iron being used as a bookend, doorstop, or as a paperweight.  Just as washboards are still plentiful, so are irons of every shape, design, use, and maker.  Local blacksmith shops were the first makers of the sad iron, (sad coming from old English meaning heavy, solid or dense). 

The most collectible iron is the Mary Potts from Ottumwa, Iowa who received a series of patents in 1871 for her sad iron with its hollow center filled with plaster of Paris that was suppose to hold the heat longer. With the detachable handles, a number of iron bodies could be kept on the stove which allowed for almost continued ironing.  This is the why today collectors see so many iron bodies without the wooden handles. Again, the value depending on condition and any attached advertising is $10.00 to $15.00.  There are hundreds of irons listed on the internet ranging in price from $2.00 to $150.00.  Be smart when shopping, and be realistic when selling.

A book could be written about the history of irons, but most of us live in the reality of the moment and prefer to toss our clothes in the washer and leave the iron on the shelf.  The worth of such memorabilia is negligible, and it still behooves me why anyone would collect such stuff.

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