Asbestos Sad Irons – cool ironing days

asbestos sad iron hood

A hood with asbestos lining is ready to clamp onto the sad iron core that's been heated on a stove. The iron came with an asbestos mat.

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

Typical ad for a set of three cores, one asbestos-lined hood plus handle, and an asbestos stand. This one is from 1906.

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
  • Pressing iron
  • Flounce iron
  • Polishing iron
  • Sleeve iron
  • Family cabinet – most expensive
  • French cabinet

Core with extended "tail" for bigger base

Flounce iron with long pointed front

And for travellers:

  • Tourist iron, small, only 35¢
  • Tourist set
  • 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.

Early ad for Asbestos Sad Irons made in 1890s Wisconsin.

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.

Was ironing child's play with the right sad iron?

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.

Read more about Asbestos Sad Iron business history in the 1912 Oldfield revision and codification of the patent statutes: Hearing before the Committee on Patents, House of Representatives, on H. R. 23417.

What is a sad iron?

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.


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