September 22, 2005

Smart Collector: Value of ‘Sad’ Irons Can Make Sellers Happy

Q: Can you tell me anything about my solid brass iron, five inches long? The lid opens and it has three slots on each side. -- Inez, Yorktown, Va.

A: Before electric irons, women (and men) used metal irons called "sad" irons.

Sad refers not to the user's frame of mind, though the work was arduous, but to the weight of the iron. To prepare for ironing, the worker placed a small heavy metal iron atop a wood-burning stove used for heating or cooking.

The hot surface was then pressed to the fabric; that's why it is called "iron" -- ing!

Early sad irons were solid metal, usually iron. Later refinements included a metal slug heated and placed in a metal frame, irons fueled with white gas (kerosene), alcohol, electric or other fuel types, and irons lined with asbestos.

In 1871, Mary Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa, revolutionized the industry by patenting an iron with a detachable handle. Known as the "Mrs. Potts' Sad Iron," her invention enabled workers to keep alternate handleless irons heating on the stove. When the iron cooled, bottom units were exchanged.

Visit for a link to the Midwest Sad Irons Collectors Club (MSICC). Don't let the regional tag fool you; the group is international, with members from throughout the U.S. plus several countries.

Based on holes in the side of the reader's iron, MSICC President John Morley, Jr. thinks it is probably a charcoal iron. When filled with hot coals, the unit was ready to press. The brass rooster knob that lifts the top lid is an occasional ornament in sad irons.

This unit could be an early iron or a repro. As Morley explained, "because of their popularity and collectibility, some fancy early irons have been reproduced."

Of course, value will differ, depending on the truth. Checking eBay, a similar iron was posted with no bids, probably because potential bidders smelled a repro.

To determine age and authenticity, the iron must be seen by a collector. I suggest you contact Morley or another officer of the MSICC.

FYI: Morley, who collects children's sad irons, is reachable by linking to MSICC through the site above. If the site does not give enough info, he suggests "Pressing Irons and Trivets" by Esther S. Berney. It is out of print, so check your library for a copy.


After we ran the photo of an $11,110 lure, several readers inquired about pricing vintage or antique fishing gear. Start with either the auction house that sold the lure, [email protected], or find what you have in a price guide.

For Heddon, try "The Heddon Legacy," by Bill Roberts & Rob Pavey, $29.95 from Collector Books. From the same publisher, Vols. I and II of "Fishing Lure Collectibles" By Dudley Murphy & Rick Edmisten, are $29.95 each.

Auction action

A 4-inch-long presentation hardstone snuff box made in St. Petersburg circa 1890 that sold at Sotheby's London for $147,984 was originally presented by Emperor Nicholas II to a French diplomat.

According to custom, Imperial gifts were adorned with gems, which could then be exchanged for gold or money. Here, only a large and two small diamonds remain in their jeweled, three-color gold mounts. The rest have been replaced with paste.

Collector quiz

Q: Can you match these Pyrex glass pieces with original 1953 prices?

a. round cake dish __ 1. $3.45

b. percolator __ 2. $.79

c. 3 qt. saucepan __ 3. $.95

d. 2 qt. covered bowl __ 4. $1.95

e. oven/fridge set four __ 5. $2.95

A: 1-b, 2-d, 3-a, 4-c, 5-e.

Source: "Florences' Ovenware from the 1920s to Present," by Gene Florence, $24.95 from Collector Books.

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send e-mail to [email protected] or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query.