A clothes iron is a household appliance used to press the wrinkles out of and creases into clothes. When the iron is turned on, the consumer moves it over an item of clothing on an ironing board. The combination of heat and pressure removes wrinkles.
Irons have evolved over hundreds of years from simple objects made of metal (though they were sometimes made of glass or other materials) that were often heavy and hard to use. Before heated dryers were invented, irons served another purpose as well. Hot irons killed parasites and bacteria in clothing, and eliminated mildew. Most modern irons are made of metal and plastic, and have many features such as steam, temperature controls, and automatic shutoff. Steam provides an additional means for removing wrinkles from clothing.
Though objects have been used for thousands of years to remove wrinkles and/or press clothing, for much of that time only the wealthy had their clothes so treated. Because the use of such implements was hard and laborious, only the rich could afford to employ people (usually slaves or servants) to do the work. In about 400 B.C. , Greeks used a goffering iron to create pleats on linen robes. The goffering iron was a rolling pin-like round bar that was heated before use.
Empire-era Romans had several tools similar to the modern iron. One was a hand mangle. This flat metal paddle or mallet was used to hit clothes. The wrinkles were removed by the beating. Another implement was a prelum. This was made of wood and not unlike a wine press. Two flat heavy boards were put between a turnscrew, also made of wood. Linen was placed between the boards and the increasing pressure applied by the turmscrew created pressure to press the fabric.
The ancient Chinese also had several primitive types of irons, including the pan iron. The pan iron looked rather like a large ice cream scoop. This iron had an open compartment with a flat bottom and a handle. The compartment held hot coal or sand, which heated the bottom of the pan iron. It was moved across clothing to remove wrinkles.
By about the tenth century A.D., Vikings from Scandinavia had early irons made of glass. The Vikings used what was called a linen smoother to iron pleats. The mushroom-shaped smoother was held near steam to warm up, and was rubbed across fabric.
What contemporary consumers would recognize as an iron first appeared in Europe by the 1300s. The flatiron was comprised of a flat piece of iron with a metal handle attached. To heat the iron, it was held over or in a fire until it was hot. When a garment was pressed with the flatiron, it was picked up with a padded holder. A thin cloth was placed between the garment and the iron so that soot would not be transferred from implement to the finished garment. The flatiron was used until it was too cool to do its job. Many people owned several flatirons so they could heat one or more while one was being used.