Liquid fuel irons: A 19th century invention that is still being used when electricity isn’t available

Coleman Model 4 Gas Iron made In Toronto. Author: Phillip Pessar. CC BY 2.0

The history of the pressing iron is closely connected to the history of fashion. Different ironing devices have been made, in order to respond to the different kinds of clothes in fashion around the globe. The idea of using heat to iron clothes came to Europe from China somewhere in the 12th century.

Before electricity became widely available in homes, there were several other ways of heating irons. The flat irons that were widely used had several issues. Firstly, they would be placed very close to the open fire or stove to heat up and so the smoke and ashes could get onto the iron, then onto the clothes. This way of heating irons meant that the fire had to be lit even in the summer. They had to be reheated constantly, so the housewife had to go back and forward from the ironing board to the stove to change a cold iron for a hot one.

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Iron collection. Author: Monster4711. CC BY-SA 3.0

These issues were solved in the late 19th and early 20th century, when a number of new self-heating irons which used different liquid fuels were introduced. They would use kerosene, whale oil, natural gas, ethanol or gasoline and eliminate the need of constant reheating. The fuels didn’t have a pleasant smell but it seemed a small price to pay for a major improvement. The self-heating irons were produced even after electric ones were introduced on the market and used where electricity wasn’t available.

Pensacola, Florida. Historic district museum complex. 1920s gas clothes irons. Author: Infrogmation of New Orleans. CC BY-SA 3.0

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First to appear were the gas irons in the second half of the 19th century, after gas was introduced in homes. Using a pipe, the iron would be connected to the house’s gas line or to a canister. The gas flowed to a burner, which when lit would heat the iron. The pipe was designed so it would stay out of the way of the user. This was true only for right handed people until a later improvement allowed the pipe to rotate, making it better for the left handed.

Gas iron railway exhibition in the museum Humpis-Quartier Ravensburg.

Designs that used other fuels followed in the next few years. They had a tank that would hold the fuel, mounted on the iron. The location of the tank was always taken into consideration and there are different patents with different placements.

Gasoline-powered Iron, c. 1936, Radiant Products, Inc. – Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago).

Some manufacturers put it in the front but this resulted with a problem: the users weren’t able to see what they were doing. Later models placed the tank on the back or the side of the iron and some of them incorporated it in the handle. Liquid fuel irons had one major issue: they would sometimes leak and catch fire or explode, making ironing a potentially dangerous task. However, they were considerably lighter than the traditional flat irons, also their temperature was more even and didn’t need to be heated on the stove, so they were commonly used.

Tilley Paraffin iron. Author: cea +. CC BY 2.0

Among the manufacturing companies were Coleman, American Machine Co., Montgomery Wards, and Sears. The Coleman company is among the more famous manufacturers of fuel irons. Between 1929 and 1948 they produced over thirty different models of irons. Many of their irons came in enamel colored finishes like turquoise, blue, red or green.

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Coleman Model 4 Gas Iron made In Toronto. Author: Phillip Pessar. CC BY 2.0

The most famous and frequently found nowadays is “Cool Blue” 4A gasoline model, which was first produced in 1930. The pump on the 4A was used to build up pressure in the tank. A match was lit underneath to light a flame in the iron. Several models were produced before, but this one was the best of its kind and it survived the longest. The 4A model was produced for twenty years during which Coleman company sold more than a million of their gasoline irons. Production in Canada went on until the 1960s.

Coleman Model 609 produced 1938-1940. Author: cea +. CC BY 2.0

In today’s modern world it might seem weird to heat an iron with a burning fire inside it, but they were actually produced and sold even after World War II, mostly to families living in rural areas where electricity wasn’t always available for one reason or another. Today a lot of self-heating fuel irons are highly collectible. The Amish communities and people living off-grid are still active users of this kind of iron.