10 November 2011

Streamlined Irons

Image from http://www.arthursclipart.org/
I call this image "The Indoctrination."

Unless the family wardrobe consists solely of knitwear, sooner or later someone has to break out the iron and companion board. Ironing is one of those tasks that does give immediate gratification, as shirts are transformed from rumply and wrinkled to smooth and crisp. Mostly I use my iron these days for patchwork, as the iron is an essential tool in quilt-making. I still iron a few shirts too.

After electricity arrived in American homes the electric iron wasn't far behind. In this day and age, when everything is Made in China, it's good to have a reminder that our shores used be home to hundreds of appliance manufacturers, from national behemoths like General Electric to now-defunct regional firms, including several in my hometown of Detroit.

On October 31, DH and I attended a fascinating lecture at the Newton Free Library. Presenter Jay Raymond gave an illustrated talk on streamlined irons, appliances manufactured from about 1934 to the mid 1950's. Many examples from his collection were on display in hallway cases for the month of October. (Most of the irons have lost their original electric cords.)

Ultramatic, made in France by Novex-Siebert.
The invention of bakelite, an early plastic,
made curvaceous styling easier.

Streamlined design was in part an effort to entice consumers to buy newer, more modern models, even when their old cars or irons were perfectly functional. It was also a response to the embrace of progress, and the idea that faster and sleeker meant better. No iron was going to race in a Grand Prix, but the aesthetic was almost universal and hence applied to objects like irons, which did at least move during use, as well as to completely stationary appliances such as toasters.

In this early attempt at a practical home steam iron
the water reservoir also functions as the stanchion for the handle.

As steam irons became more popular, the need for a larger water reservoir increased the bulk of the appliance, but designers were still able to create reasonably streamlined profiles.

The Feather Way #130 steam iron.
(From the book.)

Irons on display at the library.

The Knapp-Monarch company produced many intriguing designs,
with great appeal for iron collectors,
of whom there are more than you might guess.

Mr. Raymond, speaking at the library.

Mr. Raymond, an enthusiastic collector and meticulous researcher, has produced an excellent book, Streamlined Irons, ISBN 978-0-615-25656-6. The book features gorgeous photography, by James B. Abbott and Jay Texter, of almost 200 irons, an excellent essay on the streamlined aesthetic and even a section on early electric irons, for comparison. It's a must read for anyone interested in the history of American design and manufacturing, or in object-centered material culture, or just curious about those everyday items we use in our homes.

Streamlined Irons, by Jay Raymond.

Mr. Raymond also has an informative website at: http://www.streamlinedirons.com/