Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Tilley paraffin iron, 1953

I do not iron very often. Easy-care synthetics, especially in school uniforms, mean that in our house there is rarely a need (well, that is what I tell myself anyway!). So, when I recently catalogued a Tilley iron, I was intrigued by the fact that it was powered by paraffin, something I had never come across before and which I thought seemed both bizarre and a little bit dangerous! However, my initial research quickly made me realise just how popular these must have been in their day; practically every museum has one in their collections so obviously an object that was valued and loved by many.

AIBDC : 009270
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Irons are a good demonstration of plastics’ ability to insulate due to their resistance to the transfer of heat and electrical current. Bakelite (phenol formaldehyde) was the first plastics material to appear in the handles of irons, providing an alternative to an all-metal handle (that needed to be gripped with a cloth), wood, ceramic or even asbestos – yikes!

Asbestos sad iron laundry set, 1906
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At first, irons could be heated directly by fire or, if they contained a box in the base, by filling them with a material that was heated such as coal, charcoal, metal slugs or bricks. The late nineteenth century saw the introduction of irons powered by gas, electricity and a variety of other fuels, including paraffin from the 1890s.

The Tilley iron, model DN 250, was first introduced in 1953 by the Tilley Lamp Co Ltd with a cream-coloured enamelled body, chrome sole plate and a large black coloured bakelite handle. It burnt paraffin, which was stored in a tank at the end of the handle, and worked by pressurising the fuel via a pump so that it would be released as a vapour. The lit flame would then heat the sole plate, performing for four hours on 1/3rd pint.

The paraffin being lit.
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Advertised as a self-contained unit, unconstrained by wires or flexes it could be used both indoors and out, so useful to take away on holiday. The irons were also particularly popular in areas of the UK that did not yet have a reliable source of electricity. Anecdotal evidence suggests they were much easier to use than the sad/flat iron but still difficult to control the temperature, which ranged from hot to very hot! Interestingly for MoDiP, they ran too hot for the synthetic fabrics available at that time.

London Transport bus ticket with advert for Tilley iron on reverse, 1956.
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The Tilley iron is available to view in the museum on request.
Katherine Pell
Collections Officer

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. What a huge amount of research must have gone into that.