Lost art of ironing summons many fond memories

Sharon Kennedy

The other day I finally got around to washing my summer pillowcases and white percale sheets. They’ve been in my linen closet since September so I thought I would freshen them up before I put them back on my bed. As I ran the iron over them, I was reminded of the days of my youth when I couldn’t wait to learn how to iron. There was something magical about the way that hot silver metal triangle glided over whatever Mom put on the padded wooden board.

The summer I was nine she agreed it was time I learned the art of getting wrinkles out of dishtowels, hankies, and pillowcases. Mom was my drill sergeant, giving me strict instructions on how to avoid burning myself as well as whatever I was ironing. She watched in terror as I picked up the heavy Sunbeam, dipped my finger in a glass of water, and flicked the flat side of the iron to see if a hiss told me it was hot enough to begin my task.

As a duck takes to water, I took to ironing. When Mom was sure I wasn’t going to burn a hole in her monogrammed pillowcases or a fancy lace hanky, she went back to her kitchen chores. The ironing board was nearby so she kept a sharp eye on my progress while she baked a cake or fixed our lunch. The radio was always tuned to WSOO and Mom hummed or sang as she worked. I did likewise.

I still remember the sweet fragrance of a line dried dishtowel when it came in contact with the hot iron. I took great care to straighten the edges and unfurl the hem if needed. I ironed one side and then the other whether it was necessary or not. I folded and pressed, folded and pressed until Dad’s hankies were the size of a neat two inch square. When I reached for a delicate hanky, I made the last fold triangular then turned each end toward the middle. Every move I made was based on what I had seen my mother do many times as she took each piece from the laundry basket.

Mom’s sister, Marie, was a monogrammer. She lived in Detroit and worked for a monogram company until she bought a machine, made patterns, and started her own business. We had monogrammed shirts, blouses, towels, skirts, hankies, sheets, and pillowcases. Aunt Marie wrote our names on everything. Even Dad had his name on his work clothes. But what I loved most were the pillowcases. Those large white cotton cases were beautiful. Some survive to this day.

A flood of memories came over me as I ironed the ones with pink crocheting around the edges and little pink and blue flowers on the three inch hem. The ones Aunt Marie made for Mom and Dad have “Mr.” and “Mrs.” written in green thread alongside a green house. They were a wedding present. Mom never used them, nor do I, but every few years I wash them, hang them on the outside line, iron them, and put them away until next time.

When I was in high school, Mom allowed me to iron something other than simple items. As I graduated to actual clothes, some of the thrill of ironing left me, but I was still proud of the finished product. I made many of my own clothes and my skill with an iron came in handy by lending a professional look to my garments. Even when polyester and other synthetic materials hit the market, I still preferred cotton. To this day, ironing is a task I enjoy while listening to the radio.

I know it sounds crazy to get sentimental over something as insignificant as ironing a pillowcase, but that’s the way it is when you’re a few days from 70. You remember the old times when things were made from cotton grown in America and when a clothesline was in every yard. You remember making your own steam by sprinkling water on the garments. You remember the clean, fresh smell of a summer day as you guided your iron into the cuff of a long sleeve shirt or around the intricate collar of a blouse. You remember the feeling of accomplishment when the work was done and everything was hung on hangers or neatly stacked, ready to be put in a drawer or on a shelf.

Today most clothes are thrown in the washer then the dryer and half the time left in a basket until needed. There’s no rhythm to the chore. No mystery. With the exception of a few choice articles, the clothes of most teenagers are tossed helter-skelter with no respect for the effort it took to make them. There’s no ironing or mending them and no connection with the person who made them.

When I was checking the wellhouse a week ago to see how it had survived the winter, I saw the little wooden ironing board and red play iron from my childhood. I can’t imagine any parent today giving such Christmas gifts to their daughter, but there they were, silent witnesses to a little girl who loved to iron. I thought about putting them in my garage sale this summer, but I don’t think I will. I think I’ll keep them as a reminder of my sweet, simple past.

Editor’s note: Sharon M. Kennedy of Brimley is a humorist who infuses her musings with a hardy dose of matriarchal common sense. She writes about everyday experiences most of us have encountered at one time or another on our journey through life. Her articles are a combination of present day observations and nostalgic glances of the past. She can be reached via email at sharonkennedy1947@gmail.com. In addition, Sharon has compiled a collection of stories from her various newspaper columns. The title of her book is “Life in a Tin Can.” Copies are available from Snowbound Books on North Third Street in Marquette.