Sun | Dec 15, 2019

'Ironing' some history

Published:Sunday | July 8, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Tailoring Iron
Sad Iron

Ironing is a household chore that many persons take for granted due to the availability and easy use of modern electric irons and clothes steamers.

This piece will examine two irons that are very well known to Jamaicans, so much so that they have cemented themselves in Jamaica's' material history. The two irons that will be discussed today are the flat iron, also known as the sad iron, and the tailors iron, also known as the coal or charcoal iron.

While there is no exact date to pinpoint when humans began to iron fabrics and linen, the earliest evidence suggests that the Chinese were the first to use heat.

According to Olive Sharkey, the Chinese would use open metal pans filled with hot coals and smoothed over fabric to get the wrinkles out. Many other cultures used various heated and non-heated objects to remove creases from fabric. For example, the Greeks invented a round bar that looked like a rolling pin, which was heated then rolled up and down their clean linen robes to press pleats into the fabric.

The Vikings of Scandinavia used a linen smoother that was made of glass and looked like a mushroom. This smoother was rocked back and forth across the clothes until the wrinkles were gone and the pleats were neat.

Europeans who began using flat irons in the 1300s, described ironing as a very hot, time-consuming, and labour-intensive undertaking. It must be noted, however, that the terms flat and sad iron are used interchangeably. Research suggests, however, that sad irons were much bigger, bulkier, and heavier than a flat iron, weighing anywhere between nine to 15 pounds.


Made of metal


Made fully of medal, flat irons had to be gripped with a pad or think rag as the handles would become as hot as the rest of the iron. In order to iron effectively with flat irons, one would have to use multiple irons, with one being used while the others were being heated. In Jamaica, these irons were heated on a coal stove (commonly called a coal pot). Banana trash would be used to wipe the iron before it was placed on a piece of fabric: This would shield the garment from being burnt and from the soot of the coals.

An advertisement in the Daily Gleaner (November 11, 1953) describes the 'Kenrick 700 Sad Iron' as the "Ideal ... Most Economical Iron for your Home". These irons were imported by GraceKennedy and Company and were described as being manufactured from high-grade materials and having a far superior facing than ordinary irons and giving longer service.

When not in use, irons had to be kept clean, sandpapered, and polished. They were kept away from burning fuel, and were lightly greased to avoid rusting. Beeswax prevented irons sticking to starched cloth. Constant care was needed to keep the right temperature to prevent scorching clothes (Old and Interesting - History of Ironing).

The charcoal iron (also known as a coal iron, tailoring iron, box iron, or ironing box) was heated by burning charcoal within its body, with the fumes escaping through holes. A later model of the iron was designed with a funnel.

It is said that this feature allowed the fumes to disperse further away from the laundered fabrics. Sharkey says that to keep the charcoal embers alight within the iron, the instrument was swung backward and forward. These irons were much more stylish than their predecessors and sometimes featured decorative totems like the one pictured.

In Jamaica, this iron became so popular with tailors that it became known as the tailor's or tailoring iron. It was easier to handle, heated evenly, and was less messy as the underside did not need to be cleaned of soot like the flat iron, which was heated directly on coals before it was applied to the clothing.

Many Jamaicans of generations past still swear that there is no other iron that can smooth clothes or press pleats better than a sad or charcoal iron.

As is the case with Leonard Surju, whose claim to fame was the fact that he made several pairs of pants for the late Sir Alexander Bustamante, who was, up to a 2009 interview with Gleaner Writer Andrew Wilders, still proudly using his tailoring iron after fifty-five years of being a tailor.


Kenrick 700 Sad Iron. (1953, November 11). Sad Iron [Advertisement]. The Daily Gleaner.

Knowlden, M. (2001). Strike before the Iron is hot. Little Red Apple Publishing. Sydney: Australia.

Old & Interesting. History of Ironing. Retrieved from:

Sharkey, O. (1987). Old Days, Old Ways: An Illustrated History of Ireland. Syracuse University Press. New York: United States of America.

Wildes, A. (June 10, 2009). The Gleaner. A message from Busta's Pants: 77 y-o man learns to take pride in work from tailoring PM's pants. Retrieved from:

- Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour -Assistant Curator -National Museum Jamaica