Fluting machines, ruffles, and the Dudley fluter

dudley fluting machine

The Dudley Fluter - a fluting machine patented by Charles F. Dudley of Lockport NY. Photo © George Short, Campton, NH.

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

fluting machine patent drawings

Dudley's 1876 patent showing his unique design for the lower roller: a piece cut away (at K) for the easier "introduction of the heating-iron" into the "cylindrical chamber".

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.

fluted frills and ruffles 1870

Aspirational fashion picture showing dresses with fluted trimmings. In Godey's magazine for August 1870

Photos

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.


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