I am full of useless information. That’s what happens as you get on in life. Gradually it becomes unnecessary to know the things you once learned in order to cope with the world you grew up in.

For instance, I know how to erase typewriter mistakes when there are carbons in the roller behind the front page. Now there are no more typewriters. Or carbon paper, either. I know how to not clog the kitchen drain with the liquid fat left in the pan after you’ve cooked bacon. Or not clog the toilet, if you thought you’d go that route. You pour the fat into an empty frozen orange juice can and put the can in the refrigerator till the fat hardens. Then you can throw the can in the garbage.

You might think that trick with the bacon fat is still a handy thing to know. Except now we’ve learned bacon is terrible for you — not just because of the fat and salt but also the carcinogenic nitrites with which it was cured. And you know orange juice is full of sugar calories, don’t you? Much better to eat the whole orange, even though it’s useless for congealing melted bacon fat.

And then there’s ironing. Does anyone still iron? In the home, I mean. When my sons emerged from college, impecunious, I attempted to teach the ironing of business shirts. Each gave it a half-hearted try, yielded to failure and found the nearest laundry. Yes, ironing can be hard. Apparently even harder than paying the laundry to do it when you’re short of cash, and then figuring out where to recycle the wire hangers the shirts come back on.

However, once upon a time there was much more than business shirts to consider. Those were the days when there was no such thing as a synthetic fabric that you didn’t have to iron. (Except rayon, which was considered, and looked, sleazy.) No such thing as wrinkle-free. There was no air-conditioning except in movie theaters; everyone – male or female — carried cotton handkerchiefs, sometimes monogrammed, in order to mop up up perspiration, handkerchiefs which then needed laundering and ironing. There was no sleeping in t-shirts or nothing at all. Men wore cotton boxer shorts as underwear and cotton (or silk) pajamas at night, all of which also needed guess what. My mother sent out the sheets and my father’s formal shirts to the Chinese laundry. But she did everything else herself — week in, week out, even in summer. So it was essential for a girl who might not have marriage to a millionaire in her future to learn to iron herself.

Thus it was that one summer afternoon I jumped the gun and asked her to teach me. I was eleven, already taller than she was, certainly tall enough to wield a hot iron on the board without danger of tipping it over. And there was a lot for me to practice on. Even in winter, my father put on clean underwear and a fresh white shirt twice a day — once in the morning and a second time when he went to work in the afternoon. Now that it was summer, he changed again after he came home at night on the subway and before having his late supper in the kitchen. “He’s a very clean man,” said my mother. He also used at least three white handkerchiefs a day, and often more; these too had to be done just so. And he had many more pairs of cotton pajamas than I did; whenever a pair got sweaty at night, it went into the laundry basket and later showed up on the ironing board.

We began with what was easiest. My mother set the ironing board up in the foyer and took his handkerchiefs out of the refrigerator, where they had been waiting for a couple of hours — slightly dampened, rolled up in a towel, and cool to the touch. (No steam irons then.) First you unrolled one and ironed all around the edges, pulling the cloth taut as you went, until you had a perfect square. Then you ironed the inside of the square flat, quickly enough not to scorch it yellow but not so quickly that it didn’t come smooth. Then you folded the square in half, ironed the crease, folded it in half again horizontally, and ironed the second crease. Now the handkerchief was a long narrow rectangle. You folded it twice, careful to keep the edges even, which produced a neat small square. And then you were done with one handkerchief, and had to start again.

However, after I got the hang of it and had finished five or six, ironing handkerchiefs became boring. Maybe boxer shorts would be more challenging? But when my mother let me try, I ran into trouble. The boxers were cut with a set-in waist and set-in crotch, so that you couldn’t get any parts flat without burning your fingers on the iron. And they were dampened more than the handkerchiefs, so that they steamed when pressed. The steam got the wrinkles out better, but made me very hot. By the time I had started on a second pair, I felt sweat rolling down the backs of my thighs. Perspiration began to drip from my forehead onto the board. I gave up, propped the iron on its stand, and went to run cool water on my wrists in the bathroom sink. When I came out, my mother was finishing the boxers I had left half done. And there were still more pairs, plus the remaining handkerchiefs, and the shirts and pajamas, to do before starting to make dinner.

She let me off the hook that time.   She had “The Story of Mary Marlin” to listen to on the big Stromberg Carlson radio in the living room, a daily soap opera fix which apparently made her hot travails with the pile of clean but still un-ironed laundry somewhat easier to bear. But eventually, I did learn how to do it all. Which was lucky, because I did not marry a millionaire. Twice, I didn’t marry one.

Now, more than seventy years later, I still have this boring skill that’s good for nothing. These days I send cotton shirts out. (Whenever either of us wears one, which is rarely.) It’s just easier. And the rest of our stuff comes out of the washer and dryer looking just fine. (Like jeans and t-shirts and sweats and yoga pants. What else do you put on nearly every day when you’re “retired?”)

On second thought I take it back about the “boring skill.” My ironing know-how is not entirely good for nothing.  I just got a whole new essay out of it.  Nothing obsolete about that.

17 thoughts on “IRONING, ETCETERA

  1. stellingsma2010

    i learned how to iron shirts and i still do once in a while.
    as a security officer you must look clean and razor sharp, and so do your uniform ……do i like it? no i hate it, but happy to have that skill 🙂


  2. My Mom taught me how to iron when I was a kid, and after I burned myself a few times, I decided to check every label on every piece of clothing for the no need to iron code. She still takes out the ironing board on a regular basis, but mostly for her quilting projects. And I keep my distance.


  3. Your post reminded me of many things I learned that are no longer relevant. It’s very likely, I suppose, that most of what I’ve learned is no longer relevant. There were a few things though, that turned out to be more important than I thought they would be when I studied them… And as it happened, it was very worth while that I learned how to iron. As a photographer, I often used cloth as a background for photographs, and this necessitated ironing. Later on, I switched to heavy rolls of paper which provided seamless backgrounds that were easier to use than cloth. But to this day, I do have a need for cloth backgrounds occasionally.


    • I remember white no-seam paper from my days as a fashion copywriter in advertising agencies. Sometimes the art director would let me come along to the fashion shoot; I was always fascinated by what it took to make the model in the advertised dress look good — cans of soda tucked into the back of her belt to take up slack, a fan blowing her hair in the right direction, her standing shoeless on the white no-seam paper since her feet would not appear in the picture, and the photographer murmuring excited words of appreciation in her direction to inspire her to come alive in her poses! But what do you use cloth backgrounds for? A still life of flowers or fruit? I would imagine that ironing a large piece of cloth would be similar to ironing a hanky, only on a larger scale….
      Should I inquire about other irrelevancies still in your head? Or would that be dangerous? 🙂


      • The other irrelevancies include learning how to develop and print color film, editing movie film, and it could go on to fill a book… but thinking about the many things, and the work involved in study is interesting by itself. I think you’re right about the backgrounds… it was probably like ironing a hanky. The uses were varied and many, mostly related to industrial photography. One is able to create a dynamic scene with cloth in a way in which paper can’t compete. But the paper I use is not just white. I have a collection of many colors. Their advantage is that they don’t attract much attention, and so it’s easier to create the composition using just the subject of the photograph.


  4. Hello Nina,
    In my humble opinion, this is not useless information at all. I just remembered that when I was much younger, I volunteered to help my mother iron, and burned a hole right through her favorite blouse 😦 My intentions were good, but alas… 😀

    Speaking of “useless things” I just posted a new snapshot of 2 people doing what many might consider to be an archaic hobby ( Apologies for what probably looks like shameless self-promotion, but some of my ‘followers’ have pointed out that my posts don’t show up on their Reader, so I wanted to share this with you directly (just in case). Please feel free to modify/delete this comment as you see fit 😉


    • The two people in your photo (I assume they’re men, although perhaps they’re not) may be engaging in an “archaic” activity, but I suppose their hobby qualifies as sport or exercise — and therefore isn’t “useless” at all. Also, your posts do show up in my Reader; it’s just that I don’t always have time to check it every day, so I hadn’t seen this one yet! By the way, forgive me for asking, but what is the name of this “archaic hobby” in Japan? I would have thought it was fencing, or something like it, but fencers in the West usually don’t wear such complicated black get-ups.

      P.S. Your mom was very trusting to let you get the iron on her favorite blouse! 😀


      • Yes, my mom was very trusting, but I think she regretted it 😀 To give her credit, she seemed to take it quite well 😉

        The two men in the photograph are doing Kendo ( Women (including myself!) practice it too 😀 My Kendo teacher (85 years young!) came all the way from the boonies to compete in this competition. It was great to see him again 🙂

        Thanks for letting me know my posts show up in your Reader (insert sigh of relief) ❤ I hope to post some more ducky photos soon….hopefully next week.


  5. I had the exact Ironing 101 course as you. I loved this post, especially the detailed description for ironing hankies!

    We too had rolls of laundry in the refrigerator. What a quaint detail to recall!


    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Maggie. Others old enough to remember learning to iron a hanky agree with you. I first wrote this description for a writing group; after their enthusiastic reception, how could I throw it away? Blogs are certainly good for lots of things! And I remember the damp rolls of laundry in the refrigerator because they made it so hard to find an apple lurking behind them after school.


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