When you look up “Clothing Irons” the first electric one was made in 1882, and that seems to be a very popular event in history in general, but if you –as I did–get incensed by the obvious and decide to dig deeper, there’s a surprising history to keeping one’s clothes free from wrinkles, and it seems William Shakespeare would have had various tools available to him for keeping his poofy shorts and doublet crisp and clean. Which is why this week, we are asking “Did Shakespeare Use a Clothing Iron?”
While there were smoothing tools used in China from the 1 C BC, that relates more to global human history than in England because until the advent of international communication with items like the phone and later, the internet, there was limited influence of places in Asia on the happenings in England where Shakespeare lived. So for the purposes of our conversation about what William Shakespeare might have experienced, we’ll confine our history to the UK and immediately surrounding neighbors.
People in Northern Europe were using stones, glass and wood for smoothing since the Middle Ages. And these methods of smoothing clothes would continue even into the 1800s, which was after blacksmiths in western civilization invented the smoothing flat iron.
So what would Shakespeare’s clothes have been smoothed with?
Well here are a few contenders.
Glass Linen Smoothers
These smoothers are exactly what they sound like: glass objects used to smooth clothes. They were crafted by the same glass making techniques which created drinking glasses and windows, but shaped into flat cylindrical objects typically with a handle (though not always) that someone could use to press into the clothes and stretch out the wrinkles. Unlike other items on this list, the glass linen smoothers did not rely on heat to be used. Like the next item on our list (slickstones) glass linen smoothers were convenient because you didn’t need to setup or use a heatsource.
“An object believed to have served as a pressing iron. The earliest linen smoothers date from the Middle Ages” –Corning Museum of Glass
Dated between 43-1499. Incomplete glass linen smoother. Approximately a quarter of the linen smoother survives. The edge is rounded and very smooth, leading onto one flat surface and the other slightly concave. In profile the smoother curves, and probably was circular when complete. Source
Dated between 1650 and 1750, this was the closest artifact of this variety I could find to Shakespeare’s lifetime. “A spherical dark glass smoother used to give linen a shiny gloss. This type of linen smoother had an integral and indented central glass handle, which no longer survives, and has a concave base and convex top. It is similar to 18th century examples that also have intgreal glass handles.” Source
Slickstones were standard pieces of laundering equipment in the late Middle Ages, in England and elsewhere, and went on being used up to the 19th century, long after the introduction of metal irons. They were convenient for small jobs when you didn’t want to heat up irons, lay out ironing blankets on boards, and so on.
Here is another picture of a complete linen smoother.
This comes from the Colchester Museum (uploaded to Wikimedia Commons). Their notes describe the smoother this way:
Complete, glass linen smoother. This linen smoother is made from black glass and is circular in plan and a flattened kidney shape in section, being clearly domed on one face and slightly flattened and countersunk on the opposite. Within this countersunk, circular depression are the clear remains of the ‘stalk’ of glass where the smoother was separated by twisting from the maker’s glass rod. The surface has a patchy iridescent quality. It is heavily abraded, with a significant flake of glass chipped from one side on the domed underside. The abrasion and chipped area are worn, suggesting this damage occurred in antiquity. The smoother is 78.5mm in diameter and 30.54mm thick. The circular countersunk ‘depression is 27.04mm in diameter and the stalk’ is approximately 8mm high. The linen smoother weighs 286.85g.
Linen smoothers, such as the one recorded here, are known from 10th –13th century contexts in London (Pritchardin Vince 1991, Aspects of Saxo-Norman London), York (Walton-Rogers 1997) and Winchester (Biddle, 1990, Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester, page 240), where the countersunk ‘stalk’ is noted as a defining feature. Fragments of similar black glass smoothers are known from 10-12th century Thetford (Rogerson and Dallas, 1984, Excavations in Thetford 1948-59 and 1973-80, page 116), 10-11th century Norwich (Margeson, 1993, Norwich Households, page 138), 11th-12th century Great Yarmouth (East Anglian Archaeology Report number 2, 1976, page 238) and at Northampton from 11th-late 15th centuries (Williams, 1979, St Peter’s Street, Northampton, page 298).
. Williams (1979) comments that linen smoothers are fairly common finds in Viking period graves in Scandinavia and that early examples are also known from Britain (see references above). He also notes that the smaller smoothers are more comparable with early medieval and medieval examples. After the 16th century the smoothers became larger and were also manufactured with an integral, vertical glass handle. It is impossible to say whether, or how long, the simpler, handle-less smoother continued alongside the newer versions into the 16th century, as no evidence could be found to clarify this.
However, given the similar black coloured glass and the relative small size of the linen smoother recorded here, it would be fair to suggest that it is probably of 10th-13th century in date. Local knowledge suggests that it was found on the site of an (unrecorded) medieval house.
Dated between 950 and 1300, it was found in Essex, England. Source
Flat irons, made of actual iron, used for smoothing clothes were being made by blacksmiths of the Middle Ages long before Shakespeare. These are the “irons” we think of as “old fashioned irons” (at least here in the United States this version was used up until the 20th century, and I know because my great-grandmother used them until the mid-1900s and my grandmother has a blemish on one of her tables from where she burned the table while ironing clothes with one of them in the late 1900s).
These irons had to be heated to be functional. You heated them up on fire, or setting them near a stove, and once hot, you pressed them into the clothes to smooth out wrinkles. They could be made from stone, soapstone, or stone. Some irons could be fashioned into this shape out of clay, much like you think of earthenware cups or pots. (though that version was more done in France and the Netherlands rather than in England).
The English term for Flat Irons that was more common than “flat iron” was to call them “sad irons” You can see the phrase Sad Iron imprinted on this one from Dover. (A date is not listed for this photo and it’s entirely possible this iron was printed this way hundreds of years after Shakespeare, I am just providing the image because it helps explain and is just plain cool. Notably, this is also from the US, not England).
Base of a Dover Sad Iron, No 62. Part of the small museum display at Gorge Powerhouse, Newhalem, Washington, USA. Source
The irons worked with an attached metal handle (sometimes made of iron as well, sometimes not). Since they had to be heated, these handles became very hot so prior to the advent of heat resistant handles, they would be picked up and used by wrapping the handle in a thick peice of cloth or some kind of pad. Exploring pot holders of the 16th century is for another day, but you get the idea.
It was common to use at least two irons when working on clothes to maximize efficiency.While one was heating, the other could be used, and then trade out as you went through your work as needed. In large households, who could afford this kind of luxury, there were stoves built for the purpose of heating irons. Think pizza oven, but for irons.
When you work with sad irons, the hot iron can stick to clothes, so they would coat the irons in beeswax to prevent sticking. They also had to learn via trial and error the magic space between “hot enough to do the job” and “so hot you burn things” and that was generally accomplished by simply diving in and learning as you went. There is a story about a spit test for the iron where you could spit on it to tell if it was hot enough (evaporated fast enough?), and Charles Dickens wrote in The Old Curiosity Shop about a woman who tested the iron for acceptable heat by holding it near her cheek. I agree with Dickens’ quote there, as he called that approach “alarmingly close.”
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Charcoal Iron Box for ironing the clothes. Source
Iron boxes were flat irons adapted with a box on the bottom as a way to continue keeping the iron on the fire while you worked. The box was built between the handle and the iron that went on the clothes. It usually featured a chimney to direct resulting smoke away from the clothing being worked on, and was powered by charcoal which would burn longer than wood. This kind of iron is still used in many parts of Africa, enjoyed for it’s reliability and lack of a need for electricity.
In some cases, the iron was designed to be fitted with a brick or slab of metal which could be heated independently, then placed inside the iron to lengthen the life of the heat, but lessen the liklihood of getting charcoal on the clothes.
Screw presses worked like what you may have seen as a printing press, where clothes could be pressed together between two pieces of wood which were cranked down by a large screw.
In the 1400s, and before, this was a favored method of laundring and smoothing large linens like bedsheets or table clothes. There were also rollers that could smooth out the clothes which would be called either rollers (as you might expect) or also “calenders.” Before the advent of dresser drawers, this press could work as the storage facility for the items being pressed until they were ready to be used.
This approach to smoothing laundry persisted in the US as well into the 20th century, you’ll see these “rollers” on turn of the 20th century washing machines from the early to mid-1900s.
20th century washing example, titled “Laundry is being passed through the mangle” Source
Mangle Board and Rolling Pin
In England boards, paddles or bats like these were called battledores, battels, beatels, beetles, or other “beating” names. In Yorkshire a bittle and pin was used in the same way as the Scandinavian mangle board and roller.
European; Mangle board; Furniture. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dated 1799. Source
The Mangle seems to describe specifically the rollers, but there was also a paddle, like a cricket bat, known as a laundry bat which was popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and often gets overlapped with the Mangle. (Explains the linguistic expression of “mangling” someone meaning to beat them up.)
Unidentified painter. Portrait of Christine de Suède (Queen of Sweden from 1632-1654), age 6, in 1632. She is holding a battledore and shuttlecock–for her, these were game pieces, but they started out as laundry equipment and the indication from what I’ve read is they were used for both purposes overlapping each other during Shakespeare’s lifetime, not unlike the idea of “horseshoes” being both a game and something a horse uses on his feet at the same time. Source
The flat paddle type bat for beating dirt and wrinkles out of one’s linens was also called a battledore (often spelled “batyldore” before and during Shakespeare’s life. Source).
According to one source I found, round paddles were called “beetles”, were used for sport (as well as laundry) and developed into the precursor to of the game we know today as Badminton.
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Which did Shakespeare use? It is my best guess that Shakespeare would have been most familiar with a Sadiron. I make that proposition because a sad iron was also called a Tailor’s Goose, and we find a reference to both the English tailor and his use of a goose, or sadiron, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither, for stealing out of a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may roast your goose.
The phrase “tailor’s goose” (sometimes spelled “taylor’s goose”) referred to the act of ironing one’s clothes. A tailor typically did the ironing for anyone’s clothes (as opposed to each person doing their own), and because the iron had a handle on it shaped like a goose’s neck, it came to be called A Tailor’s Goose.
In Scotland the expression was “gusing irons” for people who were “goosing” their clothes with the flat iron.
Solid cast iron Iron, decorative, twisted wrought-iron handle. Tailors Goose. Title: Sad Iron with twisted wrought iron handle. C. 1865. Missouri History Museum. Source
While Shakespeare talks about iron in several places within his plays, almost all of Shakespeare’s uses of Iron refer to the metal as applied to military attire, weapons, or once in Venus and Adonis he uses it to describe a horse’s bit. But as a term “iron” as applied to the thing we use to smooth our clothes, likely wasn’t what Shakespeare said about his own clothes.
As far as how Shakespeare would have kept his own clothes smooth, it likely wasn’t Shakespeare himself who did the work of keeping his attire well pressed.
The Hospital for lunatics. Bethlem Hospital, London: the incurables being inspected by a member of the medical staff, with the patients represented by political figures. Drawing by Thomas Rowlandson, 1789. Bethlem Hospital, London: incurables being inspected, 1789. Source
While this is about 100 years after Shakespeare, it does demonstrate the use of the phrase “taylor’s goose” applied to a clothing iron in England. The left inmate has a smoothing iron and is inscribed “went mad and fancied himself a taylor’s goose”: the figure is unidentified, and has an inscription “Driven mad by a political itching”, referring to a woman. A tailor’s goose is a smoothing-iron, so called from the resemblance of the handle to the shape of a goose’s neck. This is an editorial cartoon commenting on politics in England at the time it was drawn, 1789.
For William Shakespeare, it would have either been Anne Hathaway, their servants, or when in London, Shakespeare would have taken his clothes to a tailor for this purpose. You can think of that as like taking your clothes to the dry cleaner today.
MAKE YOUR OWN TUDOR SOAP BALLS
Try out a piece of Shakespeare’s history for yourself! You can make your very own Tudor soap balls, which would have been used along with those batyldores we mentioned in today’s episode for cleaning your linens in the 16th century. You can download a recipe for making your own when you sign up to our email updates about That Shakespeare Life.