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Are You Ironing Backwards?

I used to iron backwards… at least according to history.

I once came across a TV documentary partly about British butlers (I think it was on PBS and unfortunately, I don’t know the title). During the little bit I watched, the butlers were talking about pressing the laundry. They claimed that everyone who has not attended butler academy uses their ironing board incorrectly – the tapered end should be on the right, and most ironing should be done on the other, square end. I witnessed a demonstration on how to properly set up and use an ironing board in the traditional way that a butler does, which they said makes it easier to iron (especially when ironing a man’s button-down shirt).

The idea of turning my ironing board around intrigued me – had I gotten stuck in a modern paradigm when there was an old-fashioned, easier way? I decided to find out for myself by experimenting with my own ironing board.

My ironing corner with the ironing board reversed.

I fully expected to hate my board being turning around. It just looked wrong. The tapered end had always been on my left! How could my perfectionist father have shown me the improper way to set up the board?? (Kidding! Dad, thanks for teaching me to iron so well otherwise!)

After a few ironing sessions, I discovered that I agreed with the butling way! There are many advantages to predominately using the square end of an ironing board:

Man's shirt on the square end of the ironing board.

    • It’s faster to iron most button-down shirts because each half of the front fits neatly on the square end (just like they demonstrated in the documentary!).
    • Yardage of uncut fabric (and bed sheets) can be ironed easier and the taper will not leave strange diagonal wrinkles in the middle of a large piece of fabric.
    • Fewer things fall off the board as you are ironing. (You just have to be a little more careful when putting down your iron on the smaller, tapered end.)
    • You add to the size of your ironing board by increasing the surface area of your ironing space. (That pointy end of the board really cuts out a lot of surface!)

My various ironing tools

Many costume shops I have worked in have custom built ironing “tables” with a tapered board off in a corner as a secondary place to iron.  I realized that I never really used the tapered end of an ironing board because I have other more useful ironing tools like a tailor’s ham, sleeve board, seam roll, clapper/point presser, and various items from the hardware store.  So now I prefer to iron with my board pointing to the right because I have found it to be faster and easier.

I was curious about how the modern standard of the square end being on the right came to be. After all, most “deluxe” modern ironing boards have the fancy iron rest attached to the square end of the board – meaning that the right-handed person would place the wider end to their right. (Not to mention wall-mounted fold-down boards!)

Typical "deluxe" modern board with iron rest attached

My curiosity led me to the aptly named website, which is about the “history of housekeeping, household antiques, and domestic objects”. According to the website’s “History of Ironing Boards”, the early versions of ironing boards were just that – boards covered in fabric and often balanced on the backs of chairs.

Apparently, a tapered ironing board was historically called a “skirt board” and made it easier to press the skirt of a dress since a full skirt naturally narrows at the waist while the hem is wider. But for most everything else besides a skirt, the square end of the board was favored. And it seems that even as late as 1940, women were still using their ironing boards in the traditional way – with the square end to the left!

Woman Ironing in North Dakota, 1940, photographed by John Vachon

So sometime in the last 70 years, I guess some manufacturer decided it was a good idea to add an iron rest to the square end of an ironing board, call it “deluxe”, and charge extra for the iron rack addition. But then you lose the usefulness of the square end of the board while increasing the price!

I did find this folding ironing board (labeled as a “home ironing table”) with a removable square end and iron rest:

I’m not exactly sure how the square end-attachment works, but you can save yourself the money (it’s over $250!) and just turn your tapered board around!

So give it a try and turn your ironing board around. You might find you like it better. 🙂

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