German kitchens used to have a decorative shelf with a set of pots, neat and tidy, filled with three essentials for a clean home: soap, sand, and soda. Although English-speaking countries never had a special storage unit like this, and didn’t think of the “three esses” as a trio, they also made much use of sand and soda as well as soap.
Antique wall-hung shelves with their three containers appeal to collectors in the USA, not just parts of Europe. The most attractive to me are the ones ornamented in folk art style with full-petalled pink roses and curving outlines. Traditional German lettering adds character too.
They all seem to be made of enamelled sheet metal and belong to the first half of the 20th century, or possibly the late 19th too – the heyday of enamelware. If you know when these first came into use please do add a comment. The early 20th/late 19th century dates would match with cleaning and washing methods in that period.
Washing soda in the late 19th century was factory-made and quite affordable. Among other things, it helps with laundry and with taking out stains from wood, and is simple enough to be seen today as a “green” product. Soap, like soda, was quite plentiful by 1900, not too expensive, and was available in powder or flakes suitable for filling a nice enamel pot.
Sand had been a basic cleaning agent for centuries: for scrubbing floors, scouring iron cooking pots, and much more. This is easier to remember in German-speaking countries where the word Scheuersand, meaning scouring sand, is still recognised. Fine sand for cleaning gradually morphed into white abrasive cleaning powders with hygienic-smelling chemicals. There was an intermediate stage with sand and soda scouring mixes. One brand of “sand”, ATA, was remembered with nostalgia by some older people from former East Germany, after it vanished around 1989.
Household advice books from 100 years ago tell us about using the three esses. There’s one in German that recommends mixing soda and sand for cleaning wood – no soap as that makes wood look grey. Use all three for metal utensils but be sparing with the sand or you will damage tinned surfaces. Enamel is best cleaned with a soap and soda mixture, after soaking.
Or you can buy some detergent at the supermarket…..
When a reader told me she’d seen a “Manual Washing Machine” on sale looking just like a traditional posser, but with the advantages of plastic, I was intrigued and read every word of the customer reviews, wanting to know who liked it.
I already knew that many visitors to our sister site at Old and Interesting are interested in self-sufficiency. Some are in search of green or thrifty ways of living. Some want to be prepared for power outages or other emergencies. (And, by the way, there are lots of readers with completely different interests – historical ones especially.)
But it was news to me that a posser would be useful on a camping trip, or for soldiers washing their clothes in Afghanistan. This modern blue one has attracted some enthusiastic feedback, though reviewers are always quick to point out any disadvantages too. One person who had not been reading up on vintage laundry methods was misled by the name and tried to stuff their sweatpants inside the cone.
Traditional posser is what I called it at the start, but this kind of thing only goes back so far. The metal cone plunger type belongs to the later 1800s and early 1900s. Older laundry punches and dollies could press and stir a tubful of clothing and household linen, but they didn’t have “suction” to encourage water and suds to circulate through the fabric. Washing dollies may go back to before 1700, but simple wooden sticks (or human feet) are the truly traditional, centuries-old ancestors of this “manual washing machine”.
You may like to see a video by the manufacturer, explaining the best features of his product.
It’s this “possing” action – plunging, pressing, and stirring – that inspired the very earliest washing machines. The machines that move clothes round and round in a revolving tub came later, using the same kind of mechanism as barrel butter churns that turn the cream over and over.
I like the way the 21st century hand tool is called a machine. There’s some historical truth there, since that’s the way the word was used in the early days of modern-ish laundry inventions, when 18th century technology was getting going. All sorts of newly-invented gadgets that were a bit more ingenious than a stick or plank might be called “machines”.
While searching for alternatives to this blue plastic posser, I came across a print of a 1940s style kitchen with a woman using an old metal cone in what looks like a tub-type washing machine, not just a simple washtub. Is this an authentic “re-enactment” of life 60 years ago?
These are available from Amazon.com. (Click picture for more info.)
The Asbestos Sad Iron design really did use asbestos. It was under the handle, inside a “hood” or cover that fitted over a heated “core”. It “bottled up” the heat, said an ad, so it was all channeled through the hot solid steel surface that pressed the clothes smooth. No heat rose upward to bother the woman ironing. The handle stayed 15 degrees cooler than blood temperature, claimed the Dover Manufacturing Company in early 1900s USA, and the cores needed reheating less often than other flat irons. This brand flourished just before electric irons helped bring cooler, less fatiguing ironing days.
Hot iron, cold handle
The main selling point was the cool handle on a hot iron. A 1906 ad explains this, and more:
The Asbestos Sad Iron handle…is attached to a steel shield, separated by an air space from the hood, thus preventing any conduction of heat to the hand. The asbestos lined cover, when placed over the throroughly heated iron, shuts in the heat. … An air chamber between the core and hood serves as a non-conductor of heat and also as a heat reservoir…
Is your comfort a consideration? If it is, this feature alone is sufficient to induce you to purchase an Asbestos Sad Iron Equipment…The elegant polish…is not intended for the sake of appearance only – but for the sake of making possible handsome work… All metal parts are substantially coated in nickel that won’t peel off … smoothness and polish of a mirror… glide over the most delicate fabrics…
No more handsome and useful wedding or anniversary gift can be found than the “Asbestos French Cabinet”. [boxed set]
Sets and specialist irons
The most-advertised Asbestos Sad Iron product was a “Laundry set” with 3 cores, hood, and stand, usually retailing at $2. In fact there were three types of Laundry set, one with extended pressing surfaces on the bottom of the cores. You could also choose from these:
Household set – 5 irons
Family cabinet – most expensive
And for travellers:
Tourist iron, small, only 35¢
Tourist flounce iron
You could also buy extra cores or hoods individually.
Manufacturers, patents, inventors and businessmen: Tverdahl, Johnson-Vea, Clark, Chalfant
In 1893 two men of Norwegian ancestry went into the sad iron manufacturing business in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Charles T. Johnson-Vea, who was not quite 30, had an entrepreneurial spirit, and Ole Tverdahl, in his early 40s, was an inventor. The Tverdahl-Johnson Company’s first patent was based on an idea of Ole’s wife Mathilde, but it had no sign of the asbestos iron that would be well-known in a few years.
Then another Stoughton resident, Dr Lorenzo.D. Clark, gave Johnson-Vea (aka Johnson) his idea for an iron with an asbestos layer and air pocket between the handle and the hot part, along with a crude model he had made. An improved version was produced and marketed. By 1898 Tverdahl-Johnson had more than 40 employees. Charlie Johnson wanted to expand further. He especially wanted better access to markets in the eastern US. In 1900 he moved the company 500 miles east to Canal Dover, Ohio, found extra capital investment, and became director of the Dover Manufacturing Company.
This was the only “exclusive sadiron concern” in the world, in touch with “the housewife’s ironing problems”, according to Johnson. Within a few years it employed more than 200 men and sold 300,000 to 500,000 items annually. Johnson was learning a lot about pricing, retailers, advertising and so on. Newspaper ads were everywhere. Stores hosted demonstrations. The Asbestos Sad Iron was produced in different sizes, and packaged in different sets. Profit for the manufacturer was 5-8 cents per set.
Patenting was difficult and expensive. Johnson spent two to three thousand dollars on lawyers and travel over several years before he was confident that Dover’s manufacturing rights were protected. The important Clark-Johnson patent came through in 1900, Tverdahl got a patent for a locking mechanism in 1903, and other patents followed. I don’t know if their problems had any connection with an earlier patent granted to Isaac P. Chalfant of the Chalfant Manufacturing Co. He seems to have been the first person in the US to patent an iron with asbestos lining under the handle, back in 1878.
New irons of this kind were fading in the USA by about 1920, though they were still being exported to New Zealand in that year.
A sad iron (or sadiron) is an alternative name for a flat iron. Here the word “sad” means “solid” and it may suggest a weighty iron with a thick base. Read more about the history of irons and ironing here.
Once in a while a reader sends me a splendid picture of a charming object. This fluting machine photograph came from George Short, and it made me curious about who, why, what, and where. George told me it was patented in 1876, a time when fluted ruffles were a fashionable trimming for ladies’ clothing. He also knew the inventor was Charles F. Dudley, but who was Dudley?
In the 1870s dressmakers were using pleated frills, also called fluting, lavishly. Dressmakers and classy laundries offering “fancy” ironing services both had plenty of use for a fluting machine. Fluters were sold for home use too. Classified ads from the 1860s to the end of the century show employers looking for a laundress who “thoroughly understands fluting”, or women claiming they could “do all kinds of fine laundry work, pleating, French fluting, starching, and polishing”.
So how did you heat the ridged rollers that pressed rows of fluting? You couldn’t really heat them on the stove as you did with flat irons for general ironing. Instead you heated a stick, called a heating iron, that went into the hollow interior of the roller: by letter ‘d’, Fig. 2 in the drawing below. These 19th century machines made pressing frills easier than it had been before.
Inventor and manufacturer
The Dudley Fluter was invented by the owner of a foundry in Niagara County, NY. Charles F. Dudley was born in Lockport, and aged about 31 when he got his 1876 patent for “an improvement in fluting-machines”, when fluted ruffles were the height of fashion. He had started his working life as a moulder making moulds for casting metal objects.
He lived with his wife Alice just a few miles from the border with Canada where his mother Sophia was born, and ran a foundry in a small town. What did he do about marketing his invention? There were already plenty of other fluting machines available to cope with the fashion of the times. Dudley’s machine had a couple of small details which made it unique – and earned it the patent. The floral version is distinctive, and must have cost more than the plain kind with a smaller base.
We know both styles – plain and decorative – were manufactured as they occasionally come up in antiques auctions, but there is not much mention from their own era. In 1881 a “large size” of Dudley fluting machine was advertised in the Utica NY Morning Herald at $3.90. Along with other branded fluting machines, sad irons, and wringers it was available at H. Beckwith’s Old Stand in Genesee Street. The patent itself had been listed in the Hudson Evening Register soon after it was issued.
I can’t help feeling there is more to discover about Charles F. Dudley and his fluting machine. For instance, there are clues that he may have moved to North Tonawanda, NY, also in Niagara County. Do please add something in the comments section below if you know more.
Photographer for Dudley’s fluting machine is George Short of Campton, New Hampshire, who kindly granted permission for his picture to be published here. He retains all rights in his work so please note that you cannot reproduce it without permission. The Godey’s picture was found on this historical fashion site.
In the late 1940s a Canadian housewife, Joan Colborne,† counted her sock stretchers before tackling a backlog of laundry. She “only” had four pairs and so could not wash more than eight woollen socks at a time. If socks were not stretched out while drying they might shrink.
Stretchers like the ones in the photo were the best way of keeping socks and stockings the right size and shape after laundering. If they had holes all over to help air circulate so much the better. The flat wooden legs, clad in long woolly socks, were hung from outdoor clotheslines or given a place to dry indoors.
Since long socks always used to be called stockings, or hose, these wooden leg shapes were originally called stocking stretchers or airers, but the name sock stretchers was more common by the mid-20th century.
They were used by manufacturers as well as at home: an industrial invention with benefits for people doing domestic chores. Hosiery producers sometimes called them stocking boards.
By the time of World War I stretchers seemed so important for sock care that the Red Cross and other people knitting socks for soldiers sometimes sent stocking stretchers along too.
At Caldwell, under the direction of Mr. Howard D. Thayer, a number of stocking stretchers have been made for the soldiers’ use. (1918 New Jersey School Bulletin)
Sometimes you see metal sock stretchers made of wire. As long as they were truly rust-free they were probably a better design: more air passing through, and no damp, warped wood. A patent in 1875 seems to be claiming inventor’s rights over the idea of using wire for stocking stretchers, while also patenting other new features in “devices for drying and stretching hose”. The patentee, Augustus C. Carey, was described as “the inventor of more than 100 valuable electrical and mechanical devices” in an obituary.
Although stocking stretchers were certainly used in Britain, especially in big households, it seems that they were most popular in North America. After World War II, when a few more sock stretchers were provided to the troops, there was news of socks that would not shrink. American ads stressed that you could now manage without the hassle of using sock stretchers.
Throw away those annoying sock-stretchers — just wash Sarfert Socks in the usual way. They’ll not only keep their knitted size after many washings, but they’ll wear longer and stay soft and pliant as when new. (1947 ad)
DuPont nylon will keep their shape, looks, and smartness for a long, long time. Throw away your sock stretchers too because under normal washing conditions these new Bear Brand honeys won’t shrink, won’t stretch, they’ll always fit. (1949 ad)
Some people still expected sock stretchers to stick around for a long time. In 1948 the Spokane Daily Chronicle published a sceptical column titled Put-up-or-shut-up Policy Issued Against Science?.
As for woolens that won’t shrink, I see that sock stretchers are still being sold… (Henry McLemore)
Well, that journalist was partly wrong, and partly right. Sock stretchers have come back. A few people use them for wet wool hiking socks, and they’re also popular with knitters, who call them sock blockers. A new generation of hand-knitters use sock blockers to shape up newly-knitted socks. Blocking means encouraging pieces of newly hand-knit fabric to take their intended shape: by dampening, pressing, pinning etc. Sock blockers is a 21st century name for the 2-dimensional wooden legs, although knitters have used “blocking” techniques for longer. I found a couple of mentions of sock blockers before the new millennium, but the name really only took off after the year 2000.
What could you afford if you were of “middling station” in England in the 1760s and 1770s? You would have plenty of beer, ale, meat, and soap, but no wine, according to a detailed budget in Madam (Mary) Johnson’s book on household management. She suggests the mistress of her middle class home will spend £16 a year on her own clothes, and acknowledges this does not allow for “very fine laces”.
Mother and children have pocket money for fruit and toys, and may occasionally go to a “country-lodging” for “health and recreation”. Yet this hypothetical family of two parents and four children have only one live-in maid.* This surely means Mother will have to work hard in the house, on top of the “lying-in” (childbirth) which is budgeted for every other year.
The largest sums go for savings, rent and taxes, clothing for four children, and money set aside to cover bad debts. The bad debts give us a clue that this 18th century “middling” family is a tradesman’s family. Other costs confirm this, like the “expenses of trade with customers”.
Some of the smallest items are the most unfamiliar to us. Who puts sand, fullers earth, whiting, smallcoal, and brickdust on their shopping list today? All these were for cleaning jobs except the smallcoal, or charcoal.
The haberdashery (sewing bits and pieces) expenses were essential then, but more like hobby accessories now. By the way, when she says worsted I think she means worsted wool thread for darning socks etc., not worsted woollen cloth.
Buying two and a half pounds of candles a week seems a lot to most of us. In England day lengths vary hugely between winter and summer so the candle budget would fluctuate accordingly. When she says candles cost 1s 3d “per week the year round” she means on average.
A chaldron of coal was 36 bushels. Five chaldrons might have filled between 60 and 80 sacks, all delivered to the house, of course. A ferkin or firkin of small beer would have been about 8 or 9 gallons. Small beer was fairly weak, for everyday drinking, and considered inferior to ale.
The soap for “family occasions” was not for special occasions or events! Occasions here just means needs.
l … pound
s … shilling (20 in a pound)
d … penny (12 in a shilling)
f … farthing (4 in a penny)
*The mistress of the house had other help as well as the live-in maid: a washerwoman would have needed the soap bought for use “abroad” (away from home), and a wet-nurse would be employed for “nursing a Child abroad”. And it looks as if repair costs covered work that would have been done by live-in servants in much bigger houses.
There’s no perfect way to adjust the prices to today’s values. This website suggests multiplying by somewhere between 75 and 100. That would mean the family’s annual expenditure was equivalent to £30,000+ in today’s world – maybe $50,000. All very rough estimates.
The first edition of Mary Johnson’s book (1753) says she was “for many Years a Superintendent of a Lady of Quality’s Family in the City of York”.
Want to compare prices, incomes etc. over the years?
It’s winter in northern Europe, and there’s no electricity. How can you dry your laundry? One of the best places of all is a laundry room in the servants’ quarters of a mansion house. A generous ceiling height means you can have frames for wet clothes and household linen in the warmest, dryest part of the room. The estate handyman would make them, and by the later 19th century he would probably add ropes and a pulley to raise and lower the rack. No need to climb on a chair to hang laundry.
It was different in a small cottage. With life centred on one room there could be a lot hanging from the ceiling: foodstuffs needing a dry, vermin-free spot, baskets empty or full, medicinal and culinary herbs drying, as well as a steady stream of laundry and clothing soaked by bad weather.
One simple pole attached to roof timbers was better than nothing. Drying washing on frame airers by a fire is effective, but getting some of it up and out of the way is a relief in a small space.
Ceiling clothes pulleys used to be common in the UK, and they are still used in older houses where there is enough height in the room. In ordinary-sized houses they often used to be in the kitchen, so the fresh smell of newly-aired linen might be masked by a vague aroma of cooking. This is the only disadvantage I know of with ceiling drying.
Advantages are obvious. It’s simple. It’s cheap. It uses rising heat that’s wasted otherwise. It’s not much work spreading out the laundry and taking it down later. You can fix racks on lower ceilings if you don’t need the room when you’re drying things.
Although drying racks on the ceiling were not unknown in American homes of the early 1900s, they seemed to vanish later. But recently they have come back to the USA, perhaps for people interested in saving energy. You could make one yourself, but you can buy ready-made ones with metal bits imported from the UK, plus US timber. The racks cost a bit more than in Europe, but they are still a practical, environment-friendly way of drying and airing for some people – and money-saving over time.
Clothes Driers vary from the hemp clothes-line, taken down after each drying, copper wires, stretched taut and left out permanently, to revolving driers mounted either on a post in the yard or on a projecting arm from a porch or window. Indoor driers vary from the clothes horse to a rack which is pulled by pulley to the ceiling (very convenient for limited spaces, costing about $5.00).
From: Laundering, by Lydia Ray Balderston, Philadelphia, 1914 & 1923)
An easy way to have your own ceiling clothes airer
The traditional UK pulley clothes dryer is now available in the USA from Amazon.com. There’s a range of sizes and fittings come in different colours. Click the one on the left if you’re in the US. The one on the right comes from Amazon UK.