Boomers Are Still Ironing Out the Details

In a recent discussion among millennials and boomers that Mister Boomer was privy to, the subject of ironing came up. Mister B was surprised to hear that virtually all of those present said they had to at least occasionally iron clothing. Some, both men and women, said they did so weekly, while one professed to ironing every day! By contrast, Mister B avoids ironing like the plague. He refuses to buy anything that might need ironing, though many things still do. And what’s with that? Like robot maids and flying cars, we were promised that our clothes would never need ironing again!

The origins of ironing — pressing material with a hot implement in order to straighten and smooth fabric — are unknown. Yet there is evidence of the Chinese smoothing fabric by pressing with a metal basket filled with hot coals at least 1,000 years ago, and it may very well have happened sooner.

It was the late Middle Ages before people fashioned metal implements designed to smooth fabric. Then in 18th and 19th century England and Europe, glass “smoothers” were popular. These tools resembled hand stamps more than the irons that appeared in the 19th century. By the 1800s, irons were shaped implements that were heated on a stove for the express purpose of smoothing fabric. It was a hugely laborious task. Wealthy patrons could afford a dedicated stove and multiple irons, so one could heat while another cooled. Those less fortunate were forced to do without or reheat one implement over and over again. It has been noted that in Victorian households, laundry was a two-day affair; one of those days was reserved for ironing.

The first iron powered by electricity was patented by Henry Seely in 1882 in New York City. However, almost no one except the very wealthy or privileged had electricity, so it remained a novelty. It wasn’t until 1889 that a consumer-based electric iron was available. With it came the promise of relief of the drudgery of ironing that had been practiced centuries earlier.

Flash forward to the twentieth century, when the idea of ironing moved to finding fabrics that either needed less ironing, or none at all. Rayon, a cellulose-acetate product, appeared in 1924. In 1931 the DuPont Company invented nylon. It was the first fabric completely synthesized from petrochemicals. Nylon stockings arrived in 1939, and they were an immediate fashion hit with women in North America and Europe. At the beginning ofd the War, cotton was king with the US military, but nylon stockings production was interrupted as the military began to find uses for nylon. By the end of the War, manufactured fabrics comprised 15% of all fiber used by the military. A good portion of it was nylon, which was first used to replace silk for parachutes, then for tents, coats and other fabric needs.

After the War, nylon stockings production resumed, and nylon was used for auto upholstery and carpeting in the earliest boomer days. There was still no sign of the iron-free future that was predicted, until the 1950s, when new fibers became available. As manufacturers blended cotton with acrylics, the first articles of clothing advertised as “wash and wear” appeared in 1952. Development on blending cotton with synthetics continued through the 1960s and into the ’70s, giving rise to “permanent press” and “wrinkle-resistant fabrics” that could stand less ironing. This timeline coincided with the expansion of electric home dryers, which were available since the 1920s, but after the War is when they caught on with boomer families who could now afford them, and wanted the convenience. Thus started the foray into a future that promised less ironing.

Mid-century modern houses built in the 1950s and ’60s often had built-in ironing boards that, since ironing wouldn’t be needed as often, were hidden inside a cabinet or recessed into the wall. There was none of that in the Mister Boomer household. Mister B remembers that clothing literally went through the wringer in his house, so there was little doubt the items would need ironing. The circular washing machine in Mister B’s basement had a double-roller attachment above the washing drum. Mister B’s mom would pull pieces of the laundry from the drum and thread them between the rollers. His mom turned a crank with a wooden handle alongside the rollers and the laundry piece made its way through, extracting excess water that remained after the spin cycle. The extracted water was funneled down a chute to the concrete basement floor, where it slid into a drain. Then the items — clothing, sheets, towels or what have you — were clipped to a clothesline to dry. In the coldest winter months, laundry dried in the basement. The other seasons, it was hung outside. When dry, the clothing was ready to be ironed. His mother labored for hours, ironing shirts, pants, sheets and pillow cases on the folding ironing board in the living room. The board was kept in his mom’s closet when not in use, but in a small house with limited electrical outlets, it had to be brought out near the front door in the living room so the iron could be plugged in an available outlet and still reach the board.

Somewhere along the way Mister Boomer’s mother acquired a mangle, which was an ironing device popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Mister B was fascinated with the machine. It was a stand-alone metal contraption, with its own cover. When the cover was lifted, it revealed a large, fabric-covered roller approximately three feet long and a curved metal plate below it. The machine’s metal plate was electrically heated so clothing could be fed in between the plate and the roller, which pressed the garment as it moved through. Somewhere in the mid-60s, the machine disappeared from Mister Boomer’s basement. Perhaps it reached the end of its useful life and was discarded; Mister B does not know its fate. That left his mom to do all of the ironing by hand once again. Make no mistake about it, ironing was a woman’s job at that time. Dads were not yet “enlightened” enough to take on part of the household chores other than those on the outside of the house.

That brings us back to today, when advances in technology have delivered “no-iron” fabrics that everyone knows will eventually need a “touch-up.” So, the hand-held electric iron continues to be a necessary part of every household. Do you think once Google perfects the self-driving car that they might want to take on laundry that irons itself?

Do you have fun memories of ironing or watching your mom iron, boomers, or are they ironing nightmares? Have you reduced or nearly eliminated ironing from your lives or are we all doomed to a future tied to ironing boards?

Boomers Watched Things Come and Go

In 1965 Barry McGuire sang Eve of Destruction, which in the Cold War era, put voice to the feeling that should we engage in a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union, it would amount to virtual annihilation of the human species — a self-extinction.

Four years later, Zager and Evans sang about the future in more evolutionary terms with In the Year 2525. In both cases, though, the songs end with the extinction of the human species.

While some may say we’ve been living on the eve of destruction ever since the 1960s, we’re still here as a species, and still doing our best to change our way of life with technological marvels barely dreamed of fifty years ago.

Mister Boomer has noted many of the changes that have cropped up during Boomer Generation days in previous posts, but equally telling are the things that have disappeared during our reign. Like modern day dinosaurs, we’ve borne witness to the extinction of many things that were once commonplace, such as:

Telephones with Dials
The princess telephone was revealed in 1959, but it was 1963 before touch-tone dialing was available. That began the march to replace the dial phone with push-button versions; dials ruled the roost for decades earlier. Other than nostalgia and vintage models, the transformation was complete as no company has regularly produced dial phones since the 1980s. The push-button is now on the endangered list itself as touch-screen dialing is replacing it.

Televisions with Dials
In the late 1990s, Mister B took his portable TV in for repair. “Oh, wow!” remarked the repairman, “Channel dials!” Mister B’s TV was only a decade old at that point, but the 1990s saw an explosion of TVs with remotes, and the migration away from dials to buttons, then to nothing to change channels on the unit at all. Boomers recall that when they were young, there were no remote controls to change channels on TVs. In fact, many boomers will tell you that their parents used them as the channel changer. Now remotes are standard operating equipment, and are, in fact, necessary to operate the unit.

8 Tracks
Mister Boomer has discussed 8 track technology and the boomer connection before (8-Track Mind), but it is an obvious representation of something that didn’t exist before boomers were born, that disappeared completely when we were adults. Many boomers switched to cassette tapes, which are getting all but impossible to find now, and/or to CDs, which are also on the endangered list, as music streaming makes headway. Vinyl is making a bit of a comeback, but does anyone really think it will be the king of recorded music that it once was?

Phone Booths with Doors
No, not the Jim Morrison kind, we’re talking about a phone booth you could walk into and close a door behind you. They were getting rare in the 1980s, as kiosk-style phone booths replaced the full booth models. By the 1990s they were a rare sight on the American landscape. Mister Boomer holds a special nostalgic place in his heart for the indoor wooden phone booths that were in office buildings, restaurants, hotels and many more places. A good portion of these beautifully crafted booths were engineered in the 1930s and ’40s, and remained in service through the 1980s. They had a wooden bench and, when you grabbed the door handle and pulled it shut, a light went on inside the booth, creating an instant film noir scene to those watching from outside. Now, the only place you can see this type of booth is in old movies. The pay phone inside phone booths is also on the endangered list these days, as the proliferation of personal cellphones is making the need for pay phones obsolete.

Oral Thermometers with Mercury or Red-Dyed Alcohol
When boomers were young, our mothers or doctors would take our temperature with a thermometer design that was, at the time, already decades old. It was a glass tube tipped with metal at one end and filled with an alcohol-based red liquid, though some boomers will recall the silver mercury types. When the metal ending was placed under the tongue, the change in temperature was registered, over the course of a minute or two, by the markings on the glass tube. The thermometer was sterilized with alcohol after each use. Today digital thermometers have all but eliminated the mercury-tubed models. Digital versions can be aimed into a child’s ear and a temperature taken with a click of a button, producing an instant readout.

Refrigerator Freezers that Require Defrosting
Mister Boomer recalls seeing an episode of I Love Lucy where Ethel (or was it Trixie?) removes a bowling ball from the oven and places it in her refrigerator’s freezer. Mister Boomer’s mom had a similar tack in that she boiled pans of water, then placed them into the freezer. It was necessary to defrost the refrigerator’s freezer from time to time to remove the layers of ice that had accumulated on the walls. Mister B and Brother Boomer were often enlisted to help pry away the chunks of ice from the freezer walls, which they promptly smashed into the kitchen sink. Most freezers now have a defrosting feature that eliminates the need for the hand defrosting methods of our boomer years. As time goes on, freezer technology is improving to the point that ice no longer builds up on the walls, so the day may soon come when defrosting a freezer will be a thing of the past.

Vacuum Tubes
Before the age of transistors, TVs and radios operated with vacuum tubes. The tubes needed replacing from time to time, and in most cases, was an easy do-it-yourself fix with replacement tubes purchased at the local drug store. The incandescent light bulb is another vacuum tube on the way out. Boomers recall taking burned out bulbs back to the Con Edison store for free replacement bulbs, and now, various types of LED and CFL bulbs are slowly but surely replacing the incandescent glass vacuum bulb model. In 2012 the U.S. and other countries passed bans on inefficient and environment-harming incandescent light bulbs, with a phase-out planned. Congress has since defunded all efforts to eliminate the incandescent bulb, but the industry has retooled and moved toward newer models, sealing the fate of the incandescent bulb.

Ignition Points Inside Car Distributor Caps
The continuing technological revolution in car engines has eliminated the need for hand-calibrating of points inside a distributor cap. Most boomer boys will recall the little metal tool they used for such a procedure. It was like a Swiss Army knife in that multiple small shafts of metal were housed in a single case. Each shaft was a different width, and each was labelled. Once the car’s engine specifications were known, the proper point gap could be made by loosening a screw in the distributor cap, placing the proper measuring tool between the ignition points to gain the correct gap, and tightening the screw.

There are many more items that boomers will recall were commonplace in our day, and many more still that are now in danger of disappearing. What items that are now extinct make your list, boomers?