also, referred to as” Goose neck irons” or “Omkykers”

By: A Carelsen – Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History



In the olden days doing laundry every week was a major chore in the absence of mordants and detergents. Soap or soap flakes were all that was available to help with washing clothes and household linen.


A variety of textiles with different characteristics were developed through the ages which required ironing. Ironing removes wrinkles from fabrics / textiles and gives your clothes a fresher and more sophisticated look. The ironing process can influence the fabric towards quality enhancement by spreading the woven spun yarn evenly. In earlier times, modern pest control did not exist yet, and ironing also repelled or eliminated bacteria and pests. Initially ironing was difficult because irons were very heavy. The metal handles were hot and uncomfortable; therefore, the technological development of the iron became inevitable.


The first irons

Hand irons have an ancient history. Vikings invading Britain utilised hot stones as primitive irons. Slicken stones (used for smoothing or polishing) served as the earliest irons. The stones were rubbed over the washing to give it a smooth and shining finish.


In the eighth century the Chinese, smoothed their clothes with a metal scoop object. The scoop was heated with hot coal or sand and was used to rub over clothing to smooth wrinkles. Three forms of iron metal (with different percentages of carbon content) were created into cast iron, wrought iron and steel (during the 20th century), and was amongst the materials used to make the first irons.


Flat irons

In the early history of ironing and irons in the Western world, the flat iron, as it was then called, was simply a smooth piece of metal with a handle affixed to it to identify it as an iron. It first appeared in Europe in the 1300s.


‘Sad irons’ were developed during the 17th century, by the English. The term ‘sad’ refers to the pronunciation of ‘solid’ in modern English. The early ones were slabs of cast iron with a triangular shape and with a metal handle affixed to the slab. Flat irons were manufactured in Europe from the early 1600s and were made in varying weights.


People inhabiting the Western world ironed their clothing with ‘sad irons’, which were extremely heavy iron bars with handles that were heated in a fire. A person would take the iron out of the fire, holding it with a cloth. However, these sad irons were poor performers because they cooled quickly and required constant reheating.


A flat iron with a solid base was heated on a stand over a fire, hot plate, or special stove. Irons came in pairs with the one being heated while the other was used. Flat irons were heated face down. As the iron in use cooled down, it could be quickly replaced by a hot one. Stands for flat irons were usually more decorative than strictly functional.


Charcoal irons

These irons consisted of a single body, with a lid which was movable and attached to an opening and a closing axis at the back end.  It is referred to as a charcoal iron because it is shaped as a box container with a pointed front in which burning charcoal from the fire was placed directly inside on its base to heat it up. The charcoal transferred the heat necessary for ironing. The charcoal iron had a wooden handle which allowed people to hold the hot iron while they ran it over clothing, smoothing out the wrinkles.


Charcoal irons were invented in the 15th century. The need for a smooth look of clothes required its invention. These charcoal irons stayed hot longer than sad (flat) irons and were easier to use. They were mainly in use in Western countries between the 16th until the early 18th century. They were mainly made from brass and copper by coppersmiths. These were commonly constructed of various pieces by craftsmen and invariably included wood handles. The early coal irons were made from thin sheets of iron (or some iron alloy) or brass that were riveted together. These irons were handmade, and commonly included cut out ornamentations along the sides of the body.


Foundries started to manufacture coal irons, which consisted of a cast base and top during the middle 18th century. These two pieces are connected by a hinge, usually at the back of the iron, and a latch at the front. This Western type of iron was used in South Africa already in the 18th century. There were also coppersmiths who immigrated to the Cape Colony (Western Cape Province) and produced copper charcoal irons. These examples from Europe and the Cape below can still be seen in South African museums today.


Similar examples were manufactured at the beginning of the 19th century in the Cape Colony (current Western Cape Province). Examples are available in the DITSONG: Museums of South Africa’s (DMSA) collection of Cape copper irons (HG 16936 and HG 4024).


Charcoal iron – Goose neck irons

By the middle of the 19th century cast iron hand irons, called ‘goose neck irons’ were manufactured in and imported from Germany. This large and impressive looking charcoal iron was surprisingly light.


In 1852, Nicholas Taliaferro and William D. Cummings, both of Kentucky in the USA, patented a design that had a chimney at the front and a lid held in place by a pin which, when removed, allowed the top to be completely removed from the bottom. These were manufactured in large numbers by Bless and Drake Company, of Newark, New Jersey. Another company that also manufactured these irons was T. and C. Clarke and Company of Wolverhampton (England). Later Bless and Drake irons included a steel shield that protected the hand from being burned by the hot lid. Examples were also imported from the USA and England.


The goose neck iron has a hollow base into which charcoal is placed. The small hole at the back has a sliding cover that was used to regulate the draft and temperature of the iron. To keep the charcoal glowing, the cover could be opened to allow more air or oxygen in to encourage the charcoal to burn. If opening the cover alone was not enough to encourage the charcoal to heat up, the iron could be swung back-and-forward to revive the charcoal. The fumes produced by the charcoal are carried away from the freshly laundered clothes by the large funnel that acts like a chimney at the front of the iron. The holes that line the base allow air to circulate and keep the charcoal ambers burning. If you make the base of your iron into a container you can put glowing coals inside it, and keep it hot a bit longer. This is an example of a typical charcoal iron.


These cast-iron examples functioned like the copper work irons, but a chimney at the front of the iron ensured a better ventilation or draft for the burning coal inside. The smoke would exit either at the funnel to the front or to the side of the iron. The funnel also carried the fumes away from the user. In Afrikaans these irons were referred to as omkykertjies. One could blow on the burning coal inside through a hole at the back, or by opening its door and vigorously swinging the iron like a pendulum.


The wooden handle ensured that one could hold on to the iron long enough to do ironing. The fact is, that the hollow interior containing smouldering charcoal, kept the iron base hot – better than the flat iron. But in the meantime, a second charcoal iron could be filled up already with burning coal to ensure the iron warms up in time. These irons also persisted standing on iron stands during ironing.


Examples of ’goose neck’ irons in the DMSA collection (HG 10485 and HG 38164).


Further development in the charcoal type during the early 20th century included serrated openings or holes at the bottom and at the top of the coal container of charcoal irons, which ensured good ventilation for the burning coals inside to keep the iron hot. Their use in Europe and the United States continued well into the 20th century. The charcoal iron was so popular that it was still being used in the 1950s and they are still used in South America and Africa.


Examples of coal irons of the early 20th century in the DMSA collection (HG 12861 and OHG 640).


The disadvantage of charcoal iron is that charcoal only has a cooking time of about 30 – 45 minutes, and once it reaches its peak temperature it starts to cool down quite quickly. Putting on more charcoal means that it can take another 10 – 15 minutes to reach the required temperature

The charcoal iron is a precursor to the modern electric steam iron. It was an iron roughly shaped like its modern counterpart, but with a hollow interior that could hold smouldering charcoal, which would keep the iron hot.


Other iron inventions


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were several irons in use that were heated by fuels such as keroseneethanolwhale oilnatural gas, carbide gas (acetylene, like in carbide lamps), or even gasoline. The spirit iron – a gasoline iron – with a fuel container at the rear was patented in America in 1902. A much lighter iron, working with a burner at the back fuelled by methylated spirits, was invented in England in 1907.

Electrical irons already made their debut in London in 1894, and it was invented in 1889 in America by Mr Carpenter. By 1896 electrical irons were available in America for home use as electricity became available inside homes.



The goose neck iron type is an almost forgotten object and are quite rare in museum collections. It remains an interesting object with a particular place in the development of the ironing history.



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Le Roux, M. Die Kaapse kopersmid. 1982. Kaap.

Lewis, Valerie, (editor). Millers’s kitchenware buyers guide. Millers, London, Britain, 2005.

Norwack, Mary. Kitchen antiques. Ward Lock, London, 1975

Perry, Evan. Collecting antique metalware. London ,1974. wiki/Clothes iron


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