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January 11, 2014

HISTORICAL TREASURE: Mrs. Potts’ sad iron

TERRE HAUTE — It’s small, odd-shaped and wooden-handled. It is a sad iron. Not only is it a useable tool, but it was, at the time it was created, a revolutionary labor-saving device.

Sad irons of the 19th century were so named because of the weight — five to nine pounds — needed to press wrinkled clothes and sheets. They were made of solid metal, including the handle. When the iron was heated, this meant that the handle would also heat up. Wives would have to use a thick cloth or a mitt of some sort before they could pick up the iron. Even so, burns and blisters, as well as strained, tired arms, were a normal part of “ironing day.”

Mrs. Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa, brought change to the miserable world of ironing. At the age of 19, in 1870, she invented her first sad iron. It had a hollow metal body that could be filled with a non-conducting material such as plaster of Paris. In 1871, Mary invented the removable wood handle, so that it could be changed from a cool iron to one that was hot and ready to use. A final improvement was the shape: Mary made both ends pointed so its user could iron in either direction. All of these inventions were patented under her own name, a rarity for the time.

Mary, with the help of her husband, tried unsuccessfully to market her invention on her own. It wasn’t until she sold the sales rights to the American Manufacturing Company that sales took off. Advertised as “Mrs. Potts’ sad iron,” it became a sensation. The company manufactured the iron from about 1876 to 1951. A Mrs. Potts’ sad iron became a household word and a standard future inventors would have to surpass. This didn’t happen until 1882, when Henry W. Seely patented the first electric iron — but even the early electric irons needed improvement!

I wish I could say that Mrs. Potts became wealthy as a result of her invention, but she seems to disappear from the pages of history at this point. Yet her invention remains as one woman’s answer to the drudgery of ironing. You can visit Mrs. Potts’ sad iron in the tool room of the museum.

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