Who Invented the Iron?

18th century flat irons, which were filled with coals or charcoal. Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Hand irons are devices used for garment pressing. Irons have been heated directly by gas flame, stove plate heat, or, in the case of the modern iron, by electricity. Henry W. Seely patented the electric flat iron in 1882.

Before Electricity

The use of hot, flat surfaces to smooth out fabrics and reduce creasing dates back thousands of years and can be found in many early civilizations. In China, for instance, hot charcoal in metal pans was used.

Smoothing Stones have been around since the 8th and 9th century and are known as the earliest western ironing devices, looking somewhat like large mushrooms.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a variety of metal vessels were made that could bring a hot surface to rumpled cloth. Such early irons were also known as flatirons or sadirons, meaning “solid” irons. Some were filled with hot materials, such as coals. Others were placed directly in a fire until their ironing surfaces were hot enough for use. It was not uncommon to rotate multiple flatirons through a fire so that one would always be ready after others had cooled down.

In 1871, a model of iron with removable handles—to avoid having them heat up as the iron did—was introduced and marketed as “Mrs. Potts’ Removable Handle Iron.”

The Electric Iron 

On June 6, 1882, Henry W. Seely of New York City patented the electric iron, at the time called an electric flatiron.

Early electric irons developed around the same time in France used a carbon arc to create heat, however, this proved unsafe and commercially unsuccessful. 

In 1892, hand irons using electrical resistance were introduced by Crompton and Co. and the General Electric Company, allowing for the regulation of the iron’s heat.

As the popularity of handheld electric irons took off, sales were propelled even more by the introduction during the early 1950s of electric steam irons.

Today, the future of the iron appears uncertain. The latest technological developments have come not from the iron industry, but from the fashion industry. An increasing number of shirts and pants these days are sold as wrinkle-free… no ironing required.