Ironing: the way it was

December 29, 2014

Walking Riley gives M. and me time to talk about so many things, and one topic that came up recently was this: do you remember it?

vintage-ironingIf you’re a Boomer, you do. Our mothers had these little sprinkler heads that they inserted into a soda bottle to make a sprinkle bottle to use when ironing clothes. And truth be told, they sometimes worked a whole lot better than today’s steam irons.

Vintage ironing could be quite a production. Many women back then sprinkled their clothes, folded them and either set them aside or put them in the refrigerator before ironing. If you can tell me why they did that–and why clothing didn’t mold — well, I’d sure like to know.

dscn1571bbHere’s a close up of a vintage sprinkle head. I can still remember my grandmother shaking the water onto my father’s handkerchiefs and the iron sizzling when it hit the damp linen. Yes, vintage ironing  had sound effects. And a little aroma, too.

Handkerchiefs. Now, that’s another subject. Can you think of anything more germy than a used hanky? Disposable tissues are so much better.

Yet there’s a romance to the handkerchief.

But only if it’s clean.  Right?

Back to ironing in the mid-2oth century or earlier.

This subject came up after I’d hung clothes to dry on a cool day. When I went to take them down, I couldn’t tell if they were still damp or dry and simply  cool from the air. Thinking back to my trips to Europe, I knew that many European women have no clothes dryers. Even in winter, they must hang clothes to dry.  How does that work on those frigid days?  I wondered.


This was once a most-modern invention.

I have to admit that I love to iron, as long as the item isn’t too intricate.  Very few chores give such immediate gratification. Now, I’m not as bad as my girlfriend, who irons sheets and pillowcases, but draws the line at underwear. Barely.

I’d consider ironing pillowcases but the idea of ironing king-sized sheets is daunting–how would I keep them from dragging on the floor?  Still, I kind like the memory of crisply ironed linens.

So I decided to hunt down the equivalent of a sprinkle head. Because really, sprinkling is how to get laundry super-crisp.  That sizzle? I haven’t heard it in soo long and wanted to hear it again. And here’s what I found.

1108Yes, it’s plastic, and it’s red and not really like the ones our mothers used when they were ironing in the past. But it’s a modern version that I can simply pop onto a bottle, glass or plastic (glass, of course!)  Want one?

I have one to give away in a random drawing.

So here’s the drill.  I’m collecting memories of old-time, household chores–how they were done differently in the mid-2oth century or earlier. What do you remember your mom, grandmother or even great-grandma or great-aunt doing around the house? How were THEIR “modern” tools different from ours today?

Leave a comment on this post below about those memories to qualify for the drawing. Each social share on Facebook, G+ or Twitter gets you another entry–so be sure you have me on Facebook or as +CarolCassara or @ccassara.

Have I thanked you properly?  No? My mama was a stickler for good manners, like being on time and saying “Thank you!”  So here you go!


Giveaway closes at midnight, Dec. 31, 2014 and is open to those with North American mailing addresses.



39 comments on “Ironing: the way it was
  1. My husband loves to iron! He even got us a big fancy steam iron. I prefer…throw it in the dryer and hit refresh! I love a little nostalgia, Carol! Have a great Monday!

  2. Laura Kennedy says:

    My mother had a mangle! Big thing with 2 rollers for ironing sheets, tablecloths, etc. Which is how you did big things. And I remember the sprinkler…ours was slightly dented, and the housekeeper did the ironing. (Mrs. Butler was a sweetie who once took me aside and assured me I wasn’t as horrible as Mom said I was.) I associate the smell of ironing with Mrs. B, and with my grandmother, who was my favorite relative, so I like ironing too. Mostly linen napkins & tablecloths; a few pieces of clothing.

  3. I don’t have memories of gizmos my mother used, because the main tool she used (and taught us to use) was elbow grease. We had to mirrors, counters, bathtubs, toilets and floors with just a cloth or scouring pad and our hands. No mops or brushes. Just good, old-fashioned elbow grease. And every Saturday we had to scrub the house down so thoroughly including removing fingerprints from walls and doors. I would have friends come over and tell me that my house looked like a museum. Not true for my house today! I’m much more low-key about cleaning than my mother. I never saw a sprinkler top for a soda bottle like that. Interesting!

  4. Debbie says:

    I love this! I grew up mostly in the rural South, and I think of so many things done differently. I moved to a large city when I was 9 and was amazed at how much I felt everyone had, like store bought butter. 😀 I remember my grandmother making butter in a churn. I actually loved helping her, it was fun to see and taste the butter that was created.

  5. Haralee says:

    My Mother had 6 older sisters and they all had odd cleaning and homemaking peculiarities. The shirts in the frig, the wringer washer in the kitchen, and the piles of clothes to iron and to mend. My Mother was a master hemmer.She was able to unravel the thread from the skirt or dress and reuse it to shorten the hem. In my family it was always shortening the hem!

  6. Robin says:

    I had an antique brass bed – beautiful, right? It was an effing pain. My mother made me polish it every week with that awful-smelling Noxon liquid and a rag. My fingers would get all black from the tarnish. Then she’d come into the bedroom to inspect. And during the week I dare not even touch the knobs for fear of leaving telltale fingerprints….

  7. Diane says:

    So many it’s hard to list them all. Definitely the sprinkler head. I remember waiting for the age when I got to do the sprinkling. My mom washed windows and walls with vinegar. (The smell of vinegar still makes me think of ‘clean’) Put ashes on a wet rag to polish up the door knobs. Used the electric polisher to shine up the floors. Sat with a rag and silver polish to clean the silverware and silver plate before a special meal. Whipped cream with a one-person-powered rotary beater. Those are the first few that I can think of . . .

  8. Lisa Froman says:

    I think I inherited my mom’s dislike of ironing. I do it as little as possible, and when I do, I do it hurriedly. I think it’s a patience thing….lol.

  9. Risa says:

    Yes, the sprinkler head thingy in a 7-Up bottle at our house. My sister and I inherited the job of ironing my dad’s handkerchiefs and his shirts. We didn’t own a clothes dryer until I was thirteen, so taking out the clothes to hang on the line was also one of our jobs. My neighbor had an old wringer washer in her garage. Fascinating to watch her do her wash (or “warsh,” as she called it).
    This isn’t a household chore, exactly, but can we talk about rollers and clippies and bobby pins? Shaving your legs with a razor like your dad’s? I do NOT miss those days!

  10. Ruth Currn says:

    I have, for years, said with great conviction, that I am allergic to irons! I think I rebelled against ironing because it was one of those female stereo-type things that I just was not having any part of. My son, however, irons quite well!

    Interesting side story about laundry and society though, Carol. Someone told me once that he thought the decline of neighborhoods and personal connections started with the invention of the electric dryer. Hanging clothes on the line was tied to connecting with our neighbors. I remember my grandmother going out and hanging clothes and talking across the fence for hours with the woman next door. The electric dryer changed that and our priorities.

  11. Ironing was a major source of contention in my early marriage. I am not very domestic. My husband expected me to turn into a pro ironer after our wedding, for some reason. I trained him to do it himself (he is excellent at it) or send it to the cleaners. Ironing, my ass!

  12. My grandmother had a ‘maid’ (sounds so very politically incorrect now) back in those days. She is the one who taught me to iron. She’d take my father’s dress shirts and sprinkle them then wrap them in mounds and place in a large bag. We’d watch American Bandstand or some other show on TV and talk or dance while she worked. Whenever I think about ironing I think about those times.

  13. Lana says:

    I have very few things to iron these days, but I find it therapeutic when I get out the ironing board. I don’t have any old time household chores to share, but my mother in law was the queen of cleaning. She washed her walls quarterly, ironed everything (including the underwear), did the interior windows once a week, and cleaned her sink with Comet every day. Phew, I’m worn out just thinking about it!

  14. My friend and I took our kids to Sesame Place when they were little, and her son opened the closet door in the hotel and saw an ironing board. Apparently he had never seen one before and he asked if it was a surfboard 🙂

  15. Carolann says:

    Well, that was a blast from the past for sure! I used to love that sprinkle bottle. I still dislike ironing out of all my household tasks.

  16. I can remember my grandmother hanging up cloths over the floor furnace vent to get warm before ironing. I can also remember wearing a flannel nightgown and standing over the floor vent, gathering up warm air, holding the bottom of my gown closed and jumping into bed, holding the warm air in till I could get under the cover

  17. Hmm, never saw nor heard of this sprinkler head. My mom was not a clean fanatic. However, we did have to polish the silver for the holidays. We did have a flour and sugar bin in our kitchen, which always seemed to have bugs in them. I think baggies and tupperware do a better job storing such staples.

  18. Liv says:

    Sorry…I don’t have any specific memories of household chores done differently (my father was a slave driver, we had to use toothbrushes for other things). My great grandmother was an embroiderer though – she made beautiful handkerchiefs. I still have some. They’ve been thoroughly washed though.

  19. Risa says:

    Just remembered something about irons. Took one of my kids to the pediatrician for a checkup. There was an alphabet-related toy in the waiting room: A is for apple, etc. The letter “I ” was illustrated with a picture of an iron. My child looked at it, and asked me what it was. Ahem.

  20. I remember the huge feather dusters but mostly I think of the tools my dad used to use before power everything. Like the drill that you had to manually twist while holding pressure onto the know on top. (My description sucks) but I can still picture his hand saws (one really old one that I still have) and the drill. I remember opening the back door to bring in the milk that the milkman would leave on the doorstep and yes my dad’s ironed hankies (I still have one of those too but it’s definitely clean haha)

  21. Joseph says:

    Bottle idea is grate. I appreciate the post.Thank you for the post.

  22. Pam says:

    Hi Carol… Surprise…
    I see it’s been a loooong time since anyone contributed to this message stream! I’ve been organizing family memorabilia for storage (yes, one of these) and thought I’d research it online as I have done for lots of other vintage pieces. My mom, sister, and I actually used the sprinkler. What’s been great fun about coming to your website are all the stories in this stream that helped refresh my memories! Appears you’ve moved on to different topics, but THANK YOU for this discussion 🙂
    No response necessary…

    • I love sprinkling and ironing so much! 😉

    • Mark Sutherland says:

      So, I’m new to this thread but was looking up why people put clothes in the refrigerator. After giving it some thought I’m pretty sure they knew enough about biology back then that warm damp material tends to mold or grow other things. Back in those days you reused your wash water over and over again as well as the rinse water. So it was likely to contain many such living organisms. The refrigerator would reduce the growth while the clothes were getting redamped for ironing

  23. Elizabeth Cardone says:

    And after sprinkling roll the clothes up and place in the refrigerator.

  24. Kristina says:

    I remember a fridge full of damp clothes—Mom hired a woman to iron it all. It was so exciting when new fabrics came out that didn’t need ironing! It wasn’t just fussy people who ironed—some clothes could hardly be worn without pressing. Wrinkly clothes marked you or your family slovenly. Every proper household had someone do ironing.

  25. Karla Eaton says:

    In the 1950’s (and long after) I watched my grandmother washing (in the early days she had a wringer, the washer didn’t have a spin cycle). The clothes, including big sheets were hung outdoors to dry. Once dry, the items that needed ironing (including the big sheets) were sprinkled with that sprinkler in your post. Then rolled up and placed in a plastic bag (but not into the frig) and left for a few hours so the dampness was evenly distributed throughout. This was the secret to the great press you got, with as hot an iron as the fabric could take. I still use the sprinkling step for fabrics that I pre-wash for sewing, since even a steam iron cannot give the superior pressing.

  26. I love sprinkling and ironing so much! 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Follow Carol


Here you’ll find my blog, some of my essays, published writing, and my solo performances. There’s also a link to my Etsy shop for healing and grief tools offered through A Healing Spirit.


I love comments, so if something resonates with you in any way, don’t hesitate to leave a comment on my blog. Thank you for stopping by–oh, and why not subscribe so you don’t miss a single post?


Subscribe to my Blog

Receive notifications of my new blog posts directly to your email.