Saturday, May 29, 2010

Everyday antique?

It is said that the first 'irons' to press wrinkles out of cloth were used in China in the 1st century BCE. But when they began to appear in the western world of the 17th century CE, they had forsaken the Chinese technology and were instead being heated from the outside. After a while, it was accepted that the Chinese had got it right and charcoal irons, boxes with heavy plates at the bottom and a hinged lid that had a handle attached became the standard design.

A certain Mary Florence Potts of Iowa made some improvements to the earlier, externally heated 'sadirons'. She first had the baseplate pointed at both ends, which enabled the sadiron to be moved back and forth, rather than in just one direction. Further, she patented a 'detachable handle' design and sold her product as a set of 3 sadirons and one detachable handle - with that, one of the irons was always being heated up, one was cooling down and the third was being put to use all the time.

These days, of course, electric irons with thermostats and internal heating elements have replaced the charcoal iron almost everywhere. Yet, a sight that would not be out of place at Gochsheim Castle (reputed to have the largest collection of over 1300 historical irons) is played out in several areas of Chennai every morning, when the local iron-man sets up his practice for the day. The flames leaping out from the maw of the appliance remind us that for all our modernity, our clothes continue to depend upon a technology that's been around for over 2000 years!

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