The wayward path twists
and American we walk along
trust in this forever currency
of all that we are, here, and evermore
– C. Clarion Eddys, Cantor, Seventh Avenue Synagogue, 1882
The evolution of ironing technology has involved removing the judgemental aspects of each factor and replacing them with automated decision-making. This opened ironing to the masses.
– Jitterbuzz, 2016
ABOUT AN IRON
We know this: that progress lays waste to the past, as carelessly as a child crushes a bug. The vanity of the present moment condemns the memories to the shadows, to be brought into the light only when their stories are told afresh, by those who would keep the past alive. We call the fruits of this process history: Not the record of what happened in the past, but the presentation of what we choose to recall of that past.
This history is that of the American Beauty Iron.
And this story begins simply.
Irons, like many simple inventions, are blunt machines, highly refined in usefulness to suit a single task: they get hot, they are heavy, and you can move them over rumpled clothing. That’s it. Whatever flourishes the market may drive, whatever added conveniences the users may demand, it is these three simple features that inhere in the iron, from it’s pre-history (Ironing pots, sad irons), through the early days of electrification (in 1882, by Henry W. Seely), to a commodified height rarely achieved even in America.
Irons iron. And that is all they do. It is precisely this simplicity that first allowed the domesticated electrical Iron to flourish in Midcentury America: Without an overly ambitious technical trajectory, the common iron achieved design stability early in the nation’s economic lifecycle. Once the basic mechanical featuires were established in a general design, the iron, as an industrial form, was free to express itself in all the glory that the midcentury American market could imagine.
For an enormous and still growing domesticated class, unleashed on a burgoening marketplace, the newly-affordable household iron was no less than a fetish object, a weapon weilded agianst enforced drudgery and toil, and a liberating mechanical tonic, which could cut the time it took to press a shirt in half, thereby freeing up treasured hours in mundane lives of excessive expectations.
Irons were extraordinary tools for extraordinary times, and they took their rightful place alongside the blenders, dishwashers, and vacuum cleaners that we believe, with much accuracy, to have been engines of liberation such as defined a certain corner of the Amercican Dream. Irons enhanced the quality of life.
A commodity as popular and fertile as the common iron not surprisingly reproduced itself in the marketplace with dizzying speed, and a rapid-fire display of adaptive mutations. From 1920 on, the Sears catalog was crowded with players conspicuously vying to be the apple of every housewife’s eye, as models, innovations, and enticements exploded onto the market.
There is an old Swahili proverb: “In the forest there is every type of bird.” ‘50s Americana, fertilized with the spoils of World War II, was just such a forest. From the clear Pyrex streamlined, to a double winged pierrepont, to a folding iron, the irons of the great 1950s marketplace were as extraordinary and singular as birds of paradise:
But insamuch as one cannot see the forest for the trees, let us then examine but one of those birds, that we may come to know it’s surroundings, understand its habitat, and live, if only momentarily, in the world in which it came to be.
Imagine, for a moment, that it is the year 1912. The United States, emerging from the post-Teddy letdown of the Taft years, is about to elect Woodrow Wilson, in a unique race that sees a third-party candidate (Roosevelt again, running as a “Bull Moose”) and a socialist (Eugene Debs) weigh in against Howard Taft — who still reigns as America’s fattest president. Meanwhile, the suffragettes march on Broadway, Juliette Gordon Low founds the Girl Scouts in Georgia, Tokyo gives Washington 2000 cherry trees, and, on 10th of April, the unsinkable Titanic sets sail for New York.
It was a time of tremendous promise, as the economy boomed, and innovation reigned. And It was in this year that a small Detroit industrial company, the American Electrical Heater Company — founded in 1894 for the purposes of making soldering irons — brought forth the American Beauty Iron; an elegant, intelligent, yet decidedly democratic, avatar of the common household iron.
Blunt, yet restrained, with minimal settings and as-yet no steam function, the first American Beauty iron achieved, in a few short years, that singular mode of ubiquity that is the aspiration of every capitalist commodity. Like the Model T, the Bakelite Telephone, and a Colt .45, the American Beauty iron rode the interbellum currents that drove Roaring ’20s to such great heights, establishing itself in the pantheon of great midcentury products in the process. Popular, affordable, yet not without a certain panache, the American Beauty Iron quickly earned it’s place at the great table of the American mid-century marketplace.
One reason for this commodity’s success is that the American Beauty iron, while never particularly aspirational in it’s technology, was never less than audacious in sheer design. It’s early years privileged clear lines and a stout body, yet an undeniable beauty pervades the simple design.
The American Beauty quickly ascended to the summit of midcentry domestic appliances. Branded, “The Best Iron Made,” American Beauty irons were reknown for their durability, and for a unique plug feature: As a pre-thermostatic design, the iron’s heat had only an on and off setting, achieved by unplugging and re-plugging the cord at the base of the iron. Many irons of the age suffered broken cords, but the American Beauty’s solid-state bakelite plug proved wildly dependable.
Then, in 1940, this commodity enacted the design equivalent of a teen-rebellion. In a top-to-bottom makeover, the iron gained a forward sweep of its shiny black handle, as if in anticpation of Elvis Presly, and a space-age lucite midriff, in amber or in red. Sexy, bold, and resolutely American, this was an iron of its times, and a triumph of design.
Such a remarkable success was the updated design that it endured, unchanged, all the way until the American Beauty iron died out in the 1990s, an early casualty of globalisation. It had had a good run: From the early 1920s all the way through the 1960s, the American Beauty was one of the most iconic, best-selling consumer electronic devices of its age, as designed and desired as an iPod. And while over the years, a few small alterations were made, and progress sometimes stalled, the overall youthful demeanor and sensual lucite flourish which had first caught the fancy of a burgeoning market were gloriously intact at the end.
In death, the American Beauty continued to haunt the industrial landscape of Detroit. Since the ealy 20s, the iron had been housed in the custom built American Beauty Ironworks, at at 6110 Cass St. Designed by famed Detroit architect, Albert Kahn — whose work is sometimes seen in capitalist counterpoint to that of Albert Speer — this factory stood for years as a model for what a successful American company looks like–literally, as a building.
Like their early irons, the company’s building emphasized democratic elegance, with it’s rectilinear facades and floor-to-ceiling windows facing open, sunlit factory floors, while brick turrets provided for the proverbial corner offices. Generously glazed, bright and efficient, and admirably equitable, the building radiated the broad American prosperity that was both it’s birthright and legacy.
The building, like so much else in Detroit, fell into disuse in the mid 1990s. Boarded up, it’s walls still managed for years to give back to their community as graffitti canvasses, until the building was finally torn down in 2012, to make way for a parking lot.
As for the irons that once flowed from this building, on surging seas of mid-century American capital, to every corner of the nation and beyond ? Those irons had ceased production in 1995, after being pruchased by Sunbeam sometime in the 1960s.
Curiously, the company that first gave rise to this iconic product, the American Electircal Heater Company, still exists, and in fact, still manufactures irons under the name “American Beauty” — albeit soldering irons. Now housed in a business park north of Detroit, the company produces high-end soldering irons for specialty markets, and still evidences that great democratic pride that made their original company such a success:
“In the early 1900s a customer was so impressed with the durability and reliability of his newly purchased soldering iron he declared it “a true American Beauty” and immediately a brand was born. More than a century later, these qualities define the unwavering tradition of excellence that motivates American Beauty to deliver durable, robust soldering solutions. Our professional tools are reminiscent of a time when people took pride in the tools they used—and companies took pride in the tools they manufactured.”
– American Beauty Tools Corporate History