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“The machine was called an Ironrite”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 17, 2011

Occasionally Elder D. Todd Christofferson gets grief for his 2006 Conference talk: “Let Us Be Men.” That’s the one where he told the story of his mother’s cancer surgery, and his father’s purchase of an Ironrite machine that allowed her to continue her housework with less pain.

Elder Christofferson tells it as a story of sacrifice on the part of his father:

On the way home, my mother was upset: “How can we afford it? Where did the money come from? How will we get along now?” Finally Dad told her that he had gone without lunches for nearly a year to save enough money. “Now when you iron,” he said, “you won’t have to stop and go into the bedroom and cry until the pain in your arm stops.” She didn’t know he knew about that. I was not aware of my father’s sacrifice and act of love for my mother at the time, but now that I know, I say to myself, “There is a man.”

The story that some hear, though, is that Elder Christofferson’s father was cruelly expecting his wife to continue to wait on him. “Why didn’t he iron his own shirts?” some ask, sarcastically.

I think young adults of this generation can’t easily imagine mid-20th century culture. For centuries, production and care of linens and clothing was not only a woman’s responsibility, but her wealth and her status. A woman’s bridal trousseau consisted largely of fabric and the household and personal goods made of fabric. A family’s linen press sometimes held their most valuable household goods. There’s a direct line between that, I think, and the pride that women of my mother’s generation took in the care and appearance of the family’s laundry and clothing.

You may scoff, but I’ve heard my mother tell the story more than once of how she hung the whitest laundry in Titusville, Florida – there was real pride in her voice when she’d tell it, and just as real scorn when she’d mention the next door neighbor whose sheets on the line clearly showed the gray shadows where sleeping bodies had lain. You wouldn’t laugh at my mother, now would you?? Keep it out of the comments, if you would — chances are, your mothers or grandmothers were just as concerned with their own family laundry.

So it’s easy for me to understand that Elder Christofferson’s mother was going to go on taking care of the family laundry if there was any way she could do it, no matter how much pain she was in. That was part of her job, and she was responsible for it, and she took pride in it. When Elder Christofferson’s father purchased an Ironrite machine, he was investing in an expensive appliance that enabled her to do her work – work she was going to do anyway – with far less pain. He sacrificed in order to buy it for her.

And all that’s the lead-in to these two advertisements from the Improvement Era of 1950, showing two models of Ironrite machines and the sales copy that pitched them to families like the Christoffersons.

I hope that cultural context makes his talk a little clearer, and exonerates his father from a little misunderstanding on the part of those of us who grew up in a different world.

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19 Comments »

  1. My mother still has her Ironrite–and just last month I cranked it up to help my sister-in-law iron some tablecloths. It still works, and makes the same sounds that I remember from nearly a half century ago.

    Next month, when I’m in Utah, I’ll have to take some pictures and send them in to Keepa.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 17, 2011 @ 8:12 am

  2. I think the concept of a “generation gap” is very real, and the division of the family workload is one place it is very evident. My grandmother always got up to make my grandfather breakfast before he left for his job as a train conductor, even at 2:00 or 3:00 am. I would never expect my wife to do that – - I don’t see the need. But my grandparents lived in a different time and saw their jobs differently. My grandfather was as kind and as gentle as they come and adored my grandmother. My grandmother was a strong, capable woman – - no pushover. I hope my marriage will be as good as theirs after 50+ years, though the particulars of how we divide the family labors will certainly be different.

    Comment by Martin Willey — November 17, 2011 @ 8:40 am

  3. Ardis, I’m not sure that cringing over Elder Christofferson’s quote comes from misunderstanding mid 20th century culture. I’m 57 so I have a good understanding of that time yet I’m one who definitely cringed during that talk. I think your last sentence clarifies for me why I did. I wasn’t cringing because I misunderstood his father, I understood his motivation and his era. I think I cringed because 50 years later his son was using it as an example of manhood for a completely different era. He seemed to be unaware that his story, which would have made a wonderful hook for a conference talk to young men in 1955, didn’t have the same resonance in 2006.

    Comment by KLC — November 17, 2011 @ 9:01 am

  4. I believe that the non-brand name for this appliance is a mangle & the Provo Temple had a least two still in use in the laundry room when I was an ordinance worker there in the late 1990s. They made ironing all the temple laundry much easier.

    Comment by bekah — November 17, 2011 @ 9:03 am

  5. Thanks for this. I am of the same mind as KLC as to why the story was unpleasant. Having said that, though, seeing a photo of an Ironrite changed my perception a bit. I can see how that big machine would have greatly reduced ones ironing work.

    Comment by David Y. — November 17, 2011 @ 9:39 am

  6. Mangles must have become obsolete due to changes in fabric technology and use. (When’s the last time I ironed my drapes? Tablecloths? (What’s a tablecloth??))

    Here’s a Youtube video of an Ironrite. One of the comments says:

    I grew-up watching my mother iron everything on her “mangle”, which happens to be the very same model as shown in this video. About 10 years ago, while my mother was in an advanced stage of Alzheimers, I asked her to see if she could show me how to iron a shirt. At that time she didn’t know my name nor could she carry on a simple conversation, but she could iron a shirt like you wouldn’t beleive. She had the perfect sequencing of using the two knee levers and turning the shirt to the appropriate angles throughout the process. The shirt came out perfect, but she sat there not realizing her feat.

    How many tens of thousands of times had that woman ironed a shirt? It was hard-wired into her brain! No amount of neuron loss could destroy that skill!

    Comment by Researcher — November 17, 2011 @ 9:48 am

  7. Oh, please do that, Mark, I’d love to post ‘em.

    Martin, the difference you and your wife on the one hand, and your grandparents on the other with regard to breakfast, is another great illustration of the way we inject meaning into actions that aren’t inherently a part of those actions. Thanks.

    KLC, and David, I believe I see your point: a speaker who selects an illustration that won’t resonate with his audience is at least as responsible for any misunderstanding as the audience — probably more so, since he presumably had time to think about it and consider whether the example would communicate what he intended, while the audience has to take whatever comes. That’s no doubt true. The awkward talk is part of the record now, though; it would have been nice had some reviewer been able to help Elder C. understand 2006 listeners better before the talk was given; all anyone can do now is to help those 2006/2011 listeners understand what he meant.

    Ah! Thanks for that vocabulary, bekah. Googling “mangle ironing” brings up lots of illustrations, even at least one Youtube demonstrating how they work, if readers still have questions.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  8. Whoops, Researcher found that video while I was composing my last comment. And thanks for that great quotation — what a commentary on so many things!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2011 @ 9:59 am

  9. I remember my mother ironing sheets, pillowcases, dish towels, and tablecloths as well as ironing shirts and pants for my brothers and I, and all of her own clothes. She never did have an ironrite, just a regular old iron. She used to mix starch and spray it on with a plastic spray bottle, making a snapping and hissing sound that I remember so well.

    I didn’t cringe so much when I heard this story in conference as think “Why the heck doesn’t he take his shirts to the shirt laundry?”, and forgot to think about all the linens and other things that my mother used to iron. I imagine for most people under 30, irons are more of a cultural artifact than a part of daily life. Fun to see the old ads, though. Including the addresses seems a bit odd, though, almost an invitation to burglars, saying “We are affluent! Steal from me!”

    Comment by kevinf — November 17, 2011 @ 10:11 am

  10. kevinf, my first ironing chores were pillowcases, and my father’s handkerchiefs. It was a real promotion when I progressed to my brothers’ school shirts, or at least the pockets, plackets and collars (my mother continued to do the sleeves and fronts/backs for a long time after I started learning). Different fabrics, different tools, different expectations — a different world.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2011 @ 10:29 am

  11. I can’t see teenage boys/20-something young men getting hung up on the women-work vs. men-work aspect of Elder Christofferson’s example. Overall I thought that the point of the story was well-taken: his father was willing to sacrifice months of lunches to provide a service for his wife. At least he didn’t ask her to make his lunch on top of all the ironing!

    I also remember my grandmother ironing all of her sheets, tablecloths, napkins, etc. Amazing to think about in retrospect.

    Comment by Matt — November 17, 2011 @ 10:58 am

  12. All I can think of are the numerous pinched fingers. I suppose its at least better than having to negotiate a hot piece of metal in a fire.

    Who decided on the name “mangle” anyway? Couldn’t they have picked a name that didn’t sound like it was going to hurt to use?

    Comment by Frank Pellett — November 17, 2011 @ 11:08 am

  13. I’m with #11 re: Elder C’s talk: I understood father had sacrificed for something that mother had appreciated. In that willingness to sacrifice was the man.

    As for mangles — they are still in use in professional laundries. My daughters have both operated the mangle at BYU laundry during their time working there (though they had to tell me what a mangle was…and I still didn’t connect it to the Ironrite story…)

    My mother ironed my father’s shirts and folded them neatly for his dresser drawer and suitcase (he travelled quite a bit for his work). Early in our marriage it became clear if I was going to have ironed shirts, I would do it myself. Over time, we’ve moved to taking the shirts to the cleaners.

    Comment by Paul — November 17, 2011 @ 11:19 am

  14. I agree with Matt. I was 21 when that story was shared and what I took away was that men are willing to sacrifice for their wives and children. This example resonated with me and made me want to be that type of husband when I got married.

    Comment by Stew — November 17, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  15. I used to have a deal with my wife. She wouldn’t bother me about watching Monday Night Football (it came on at 9:00 here, after the children were in bed), if I would spend the time ironing my shirts.

    As to pinching fingers with a mangle–that’s nothing compared to the burns!

    Comment by Mark B. — November 17, 2011 @ 11:59 am

  16. I’m glad several of you have mentioned having no problem with the illustration — don’t I keep saying that Keepa’ninnies are the best and brightest? — but other people *have* misunderstood and found fault with the illustration. IIRC, this post was drafted while the 2006 talk was under discussion here, beginning with comment #4 — and that isn’t the first time I’ve read commentary faulting Elder Christofferson’s father for not simply ironing his own shirts.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 17, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

  17. I used to enjoy using our Ironrite in the 50′s and 60′s, and don’t remember getting a pinch or a burn. My mother taught her children to use it when we were about seven or eight, and had us even iron bedsheets and pillow cases. We got so that we could do a long-sleeved shirt in a few moments. Getting into bed between smooth, newly ironed sheets felt great.

    Comment by Steve — November 17, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

  18. My grandmother had an Ironrite, and she passed it on to my mother when her children left home, so I grew up with one in the 1980s and ’90s. It had a nice hardwood cabinet, so it looked like a sideboard when closed. And it did a much better job, much more easily, than a flat iron.

    As to the generation gap, it’s interesting how my grandmothers ironed sheets and underwear, my mom ironed only shirts and tablecloths, and my wife won’t iron anything.

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 17, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

  19. @The Other Clark: I double-dog dare you to post that over on Times and Seasons or FMH!

    Comment by Matt — November 18, 2011 @ 8:32 am

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