Patented in 1903, “Self-Heating Sad Irons” used gasoline to help make ironing easier.
Before electricity, a row of sad irons could be found in the kitchen where the family’s cast iron stove kept them hot on ironing day. Three or four of sadirons (named from the old English word sad, which meant solid), cycled between the stove and a nearby ironing board.
With each sad iron weighing five to nine pounds, smoothing clothes led to an exhausting ironing routine. In 1872, Mary Florence Potts from Ottumwa, Iowa, patented a sad iron design with two pointed ends and a quick-change detachable walnut handle.
The 19-year-old housewife’s invention offered relief from blistered palms and was instantly popular nationwide. Thirty-years later, a Civil War veteran brought another innovation to ironing.
Gasoline-fueled Sad Iron
John C. Lake, who served in the 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, patented (No. 725,261) a gasoline-fueled “Self-Heating Sad Iron” on April 14, 1903.
Lake’s invention made the family fortune and brought prosperity to Big Prairie, Ohio, where he established the Monitor Sad Iron Company on the Pennsylvania Railroad line. The manufacturing company in Amish country would make petroleum-fueled sad irons for the next 50 years.
The 61-year-old inventor earlier had shared three wood-working tool patents with his father Abraham, but none led to production. Lake’s new gasoline-fired sad iron would bring easier ironing to households without electrical service, which in 1903 meant most of America.
As advertised, “Monitor Self-Heating Sad Irons” did not need the kitchen stove, maintained a steady temperature, and turned on and off with a knob. Two tablespoons of alcohol started the process and charged the reservoir delivery system.
“Save Half the Time, Half the Labor, and All the Worry of Laundry Day,” the ads proclaimed as consumers warmly welcomed the gasoline-fueled sad irons, which sold for $3.50 each.
Monitor Sad Iron Company expanded by licensing an army of sales agents. As the factory in Big Prairie grew, by 1920 the company could proclaim 850,000 in cumulative sales. In the 1930s, Monitor added a new brand (Royal) as Lake’s son Bertus received three patents for improvements.
Geologist Iron Man
Antique iron collector Prof. Kevin McCartney knows a lot about Monitor Sad Iron Company and its early competitors like Jubilee and Ideal. A professor of Geology at University of Maine at Presque Isle, he also serves as director of the Northern Maine Museum of Science.
Since 2013, McCartney has posted more than 50 YouTube videos, “to educate and entertain the avid collector, antique shop owner, pickers and novices alike. Each video is a mini lesson on a different topic about irons.”
In his Kevin Talks Irons number 54, “Firing up the 1903 Monitor gasoline iron,” McCarthy described how consumers preferred Monitor’s gasoline appliance, made with just three durable assemblies, because it was “simple, utilitarian, and economical.”
The Monitor Sad Iron Company’s patented self-hearting design became “most common of the early gasoline irons.”
Gasoline, formerly a byproduct of kerosene refining, also had begun its transformation into an automobile fuel long before Anti-Knock Ethyl and additives added color. Until then, it was just “white gas.”
Monitor manufactured Coleman Lamp Company’s first entry into the gasoline-fueled iron business in the 1920s. Based in Wichita, Kansas, Coleman began manufacturing a self-heating iron and secured additional patents in 1940.
For years products from Monitor, Royal, Coleman and others competed in catalog offerings and ads, especially those sent to rural, unelectrified regions. The self-heating appliances burned white gas (naphtha). Coleman later branded and sold the petroleum product in one-gallon containers as Coleman Fuel.
Coleman Company quit manufacturing gasoline sad irons after World War II, and the Monitor Sad Iron Company factory closed in 1954 as electricity relegated most such artifacts to antique shops.
When Mary Florence Potts originally patented her innovative sad iron (today commonly spelled sadiron), she used her own name instead of Mrs. Joseph Potts, according to a 2021 “Out of the Attic” article by Julie Martineau of Des Moines County Historical Society (DMCHS).
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Citation Information – Article Title: “Ironing with Gasoline.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/ironing-with-gasoline. Last Updated: November 5, 2022. Original Published Date: November 5, 2022.