Linen press used at the North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY. Smoothed and folded linens were placed between the boards. The center iron screw, 3 1/2" in diameter, placed great pressure on the fabrics.

Shakers at work in the Laundry, North Family, Mount Lebanon.

Ironing table, Canterbury, NH. The top has a rack containing four slots in which a sleeve ironing board could be fitted at different heights. There are also a drop leaf and pull-out leaf to add work surface space.

Sleeve ironing board of birch, Church Family, Mount Lebanon.

Stove used to heat laundry irons, South Family, Mount Lebanon.

View of iron heating stoves from the Troy Laundry Machinery Co. catalog, likely an inspiration for a very similar stove from Mount Lebanon now in the collection of Hancock Shaker Village.

Wash: There is no dirt in heaven

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Ironing and Pressing

“We iron to day 64 shirts (rather uncommon so many).”

                   North Family Eldresses Journal, September 17, 1850

Ironing and pressing get wrinkles out of clothes. Why do we want to get wrinkles out of clothes? Historically, even though our clothing protects us from the elements, it also has been a symbol of a person’s status. Keeping clothing looking good was important to those who wanted to be respected for their station in life. Ironed cloth implies order, whereas, wrinkles – disorder. The Shakers preferred order. Also, when items are smoothed, creased, and flattened, they tend to stack and store better.

Removing wrinkles from cloth can be done in a couple of ways. Pressing – putting weight on cloth, whether with flat stones, screw presses, rollers, or irons is an effective way to flatten cloth with or without heat.  Ironing – heating cloth to between 200°F and 240°F – loosens the long polymer chains that bind fibers together. Adding a little water for lubrication, straightening the fibers by pushing them around a bit, and letting them cool in their new formation will make clothes and household linens look smooth and well tended – at least until, like the back of a cotton shirt when worn by someone sitting too long in a chair on a hot day, they get wrinkled.

We use the terms “ironing” and “pressing” interchangeably. Technically, ironing – “wiggling and waggling” a hot iron over fabric provides a smooth polish to fabric – is desirable for a cotton dress shirt, whereas, pressing – repeatedly pressing and lifting a hot iron on cloth avoids the polish – is desirable for woolen pants.

Tuesday was the traditional day for ironing in the world outside the Shaker community and the Shakers appear to have adhered to that schedule.

Clothes were taken out of the drying room, brought down from the attic, or in from the drying yard and sorted for ironing or pressing. Linens and other flatwork were pressed in the screw press while sisters ironed the more complicated pieces on large cloth-covered ironing tables. Young girls supplied a steady flow of heated irons from the stove.