Charcoal iron: Predecessor to the modern electric steam iron that first appeared in China in the first century BC

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Katerina Bulovska
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The charcoal iron also called an ironing box, or charcoal box iron is a predecessor to the modern electric steam iron. It has a shape roughly similar to the modern irons used today, but with a hollow interior that could be filled with smoldering coals taken from the fire to keep the iron hot. On top of the box, there is a handle which allowed people to lift the hot iron as they ran it over clothing, smoothing out wrinkles.

The date when people started to press cloth smooth can’t be precisely confirmed. However, the Chinese were the first to apply heat in the process in the first century BC, using metal pans filled with hot charcoal and it is in China where the earliest examples of charcoal irons were found. Archeologists have discovered paintings dating back to over a thousand years ago that portray women in early charcoal ironing process. The method was used for centuries and in many different countries.

In some regions, instead of hot coals, other heated materials were used that have a similar heating capacity, such as burning coconut shells used in Kerala in India. Heated irons appeared in the West for the first time in the 17th century when the Dutch developed the ‘box iron’. Its interior contained a ‘slug’ of real iron that was heated in the fire and inserted in the iron, instead of charcoal. Brick inserts were also commonly used. Thus, the ironing surface was kept spotlessly clean.

Charcoal iron. Author: ryan sam narvaiz. CC BY-ND 2.0

The charcoal iron was popular from the late 1800s through to the 1930s, mostly in rural areas, even though it looks more sophisticated than the simple flat iron. The early versions of the iron used red-hot coals that slowly kept burning while the smoke exited through funnels. However, later on, burning charcoal was used inside the iron, allowing a continuous heat as it burned. During the early 1900s, American models became stylish and modern. They were often covered with nickel as a decorative element but also to provide corrosion resistance, with dual funnels and multiple swinging vent doors.

Charcoal iron (old technology: 19th or beginning of 20th century). Author: RobbyBer. CC BY-SA 3.0

An interesting myth is that in the 19th century, irons were called “sadirons” presumably because ironing was generally considered a sad act, and as a consequence, any woman who ironed would feel sad. As much as that makes sense, it is debunked by the dictionaries, stating the word sadiron first appeared in the 17th century and derives from the Old English word “sald” meaning solid. Sadiron referred to a shaped piece of metal with a polished base and metal handle, hence the iron itself.

Szymbark – exhibition of old charcoal irons. Author: Andrzej Otrębski. CC BY-SA 3.0

Charcoal irons were decorated with different patterns, but most often with a bird in the front, especially in Asia and Africa. It is believed the design goes back to at least 1890. In Eastern Europe, vintage irons with a rooster in the front are often exibited in several museums. Germany is also known for producing many of these charcoal irons while in Mexico there are a lot of examples with a dove in the front.

Charcoal iron (Hungary), Author: Derzsi Elekes Andor. CC BY-SA 3.0

On display in Gochsheim Castle in Germany are 1300 historical examples of irons from around the world which, in fact, is one of the world’s larger collection of irons that includes remarkable vintage charcoal irons. In the late 1800s, a new type of irons emerged that used gasoline and alcohol as fuel. With the invention of the electric iron, charcoal irons became part of history.

Man ironing clothes with a manual iron in Goa in India. Author: Wybe. CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, many charcoal irons are bought and sold in the antique industry worldwide, and some of them are quite expensive too. It is reported they can cost several thousand US dollars in the international market. Many collectors are seeking for antique charcoal irons, while modern ones are manufactured in Asia and often sold in Western countries as copies of the antiques. In some developing countries where electricity is expensive or not accessible, charcoal irons are still used.