Wednesday, June 22, 2011


My grandma taught me how to iron. 

Nelly ironed for people back when such services were in demand. Baskets of clean laundry were left on her front porch and in the morning we would sprinkle shirts with water from a stoppered bottle, roll them and tuck them into an enamel pan and put them in the refrigerator. Then she would start in on the things that had been in refrigerator overnight and were scheduled for pickup in the afternoon.

The electric iron was polished and heavy.  Most things came starched from the wash; cotton dresses and skirts with endless pleats, acres of sheets and curtains and dozens of mens dress shirts.

I was entrusted with pillowcases and handkerchiefs once she was certain that I had the important lessons down - never stop moving the iron and, if you had to set it down to sprinkle, you put it on the hotplate and NOT the ironing board. I was allowed two fifteen minute stints of cloth polishing while she sat and watched her TV stories “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light” with one eye on me the whole time. She never allowed me to iron any of the shirts, a process I found fascinating, with so many steps to the finished product. Everything was stacked neatly back into the baskets they had come from and ladies would stop by and pick them up late in the afternoon.

When I was a teenager my Dad had a job that called for dress shirts and it was my job to get them perfect although he was satisfied to have them on a hangar.

 I was working on one of his shirts the very first time I heard the Beatles.
”She loves you…yeah, yeah, yeah….” was coming out of my mother’s leather bound Zenith portable radio and I clearly remember being grabbed at some core of my brain and looking incredulously at the radio as if I expected it to burst into flames as I leaned over the ironing board. It was the shirt that nearly burst into flames and I had the rotten luck of bad timing as Mom walked into the kitchen just as the smell of scorching cotton snapped me out of it and I lifted the iron off the ruined shirt.


  1. I learned to iron because I had 5 brothers and a dad that wire white shirts to work. BUT I learned to iron shirts on a mangle! talk about learning something complicated. Still have the mangle and I use it for large pieces of cloth, goes very quickly once it's warmed up.
    Mary Ann

  2. Anonymous11:17 AM

    this is a great post.

    my mom was a hard core ironer when i was small....not so much anymore

    but i still have vivid memories of coloring while she ironed...

    and then ironing boy friends clothes and uniforms

    i don't iron so much anymore...scared i'll burn the babies.

  3. This brought back memories. My Mom ironed for others and I helped. I hated every minute of it, but I was paid 25 cents an hour, about what I made babysitting.

  4. Great story about your ironing past! I actually enjoyed helping with the ironing as a young teen, and still don't really mind it. In fact I just now come from ironing and dancing to Lady Gaga (she's also good for cooking.)

  5. Ah, yes... tales of a bygone era! I was ironing by the time I was 7 or 8. Back then everything got ironed - grandpa's boxer shorts, my step-mom's bras, Dad's gray work clothes, sheets, pillowcases. The list goes on! And I understand how the Beatles' music captured your attention! I was sooooo in love with their music, and crazy for them! Totally distracted and still love the music! I also love what you have done with these pieces from a bygone era... color really transforms them!

  6. Oh, I remember that bottle with the sprinkler top and the enamel pan in the fridge. Wow! Such memory jogger! Do I ever get shirts looking that nice?? Probably not... mostly now, I just iron fabric!
    Thanks for the vision!

  7. I had forgotten about sprinkler bottles! Thanks for reminding me. I can still see the dent in the top of my mother's after many years of use. I too was allowed to iron flat pieces: hankies, napkins, and it felt like a rite of passage to graduate to clothes and then my dad's shirts, making the yoke flat with the collar standing up perkily. Nice memory now that I don't have to do it any more!

  8. Anonymous3:01 AM

    I hate ironing but loved your memories - as I sit here I can almost smell the smell of hot iron on starched cotton. The blue cutwork napkin is fabulous too.


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