Old-Fashioned Cast Irons

Reader Contribution by Arkansas Girl

It’s ironing day, a day I’m not particularly fond of, but ever since I was big enough to stand up, I remember having to iron my own clothes. Now, I don’t know what age I started, but I know I ironed my clothes when I was in early elementary school. We kids were taught to be industrious and learn to do things for ourselves. So, if I could hold the 10-pound iron, I had to press my clothes. God forbid if I had dropped that heavy monster on my foot. I would have had a crushed, hot foot. But I don’t recall that ever happening.

Most of you have probably never seen a “real live” cast iron. (There are pictures on the internet, if you’d like to view them). Families (like ours) that didn’t have electricity had at least two cast irons. Why two? Because they were heated on top of a wood-burning stove. Both irons were placed on the stove to heat at the same time. When they got hot, the first iron was used for clothes that didn’t require much heat while the other continued to heat to press heavier clothes. When the one I was using got too cool to sufficiently iron the fabric, then I’d put that iron back on the stove and grab the one that was waiting in the wings.

You may wonder how such a hot item is held. Since we didn’t have potholders, we’d wrap cotton cloth until it was thick enough to hold the iron handle. If it wasn’t thick enough, eventually you’d feel the heat.

Another trick was that before placing the iron on the clothes, I rubbed it on the ironing rag – a piece of cloth used to test the “hotness” of the iron. If it burned the rag, them, it’d burn my clothes, so I had to let it cool. The rag was also used for removing soot (black, smog-like residue) that clung to the iron from the burning wood.

It took forever for those big, thick, heavy irons to heat up. I can remember on at least one occasion my Dad getting dressed for church on Sunday morning and realizing that his shirt needed pressing. I was usually the one that he’d ask to go to my cousin’s house and ask to use their electric iron. Without a quick way to iron his shirt, he would have been quite late for church.

We used irons as doorstops and today, they are still used for that purpose and are also collector’s pieces. Cast irons were also used as nut crackers. When the nuts were placed on a rock or other hard surface, the iron was used to crack the nuts open. I haven’t seen those kinds of irons since I was a child, but people still search for them to add to their antique collection for nostalgic and/or sentimental reasons.

Where did we get the irons? I have no idea. All I know is that when I “came of age,” the irons were there in the house too – just waiting to be used.

How did we clean those heavy, dark contraptions? Well, when irons got dirty, as most do, I took them outside to a small, white sand dune and rubbed the cold iron on the sand. Friction between the iron and the sand removed just about everything that could come off. Other than that, I don’t recall any other way they were cleaned. Scouring pads were unheard of, and we didn’t wash and scrub cast irons as we did cast iron skillets. So the sand was our cleansing agent. Today, I use mild sandpaper to clean the bottom of my iron. I wonder if that would have worked on those crude, old-fashioned cast irons. Probably not.
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