No more ironing? Lightness as a promise of progress

by Kathrin Tschida, Tjark Nentwig and Tiffany Thanh Phuong Dao

Für die deutsche Fassung, bitte -> hier klicken.

In 1909 an AEG advertisement claimed that electric ironing had become the favorite activity of housewives (see figure 1). Today, ironing is one of the least liked household chores (dpa 2016). Out of six students who curated this exhibition and prepared this blog post, no one irons clothes on a regular basis. That might make it seem odd that a student exhibition in the field of history of technology has ironing as its theme. Why then, did they choose the development and use of irons as a topic?

The history of the iron in Germany since the end of the 19th century illustrates that technological change is more than just a narrative of progress. Even when promises of progress appear to be fulfilled, there is always an interrelation between technology, society and environment. In the case of ironing, one such promise is the promise of lightness. Lightness and ease (“Leichtigkeit”) was a central topos in advertising for electric irons throughout the 20th century.

Figure 1: No waiting time, faster and cleaner ironing, the right temperature, no burning and cheap at the same time – these were all promises made by this AEG advertisement for electric ironing. It claimed that ironing had become the favorite activity (“Lieblingsbeschäftigung”) of all housewives. But even if this were true, at the time this could only have been the case for very few of them. The electrification of German households had only just begun.

Ironing existed long before the first electric irons came to the household. The oldest records of irons are Chinese pan irons from the time of the Han dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD.). They were filled with a mixture of hot coals and sand. In 19th century Germany, a wide range of externally and internally heated irons was in use. They were either heated directly in an oven or by burning charcoal, kerosene or other fuels inside them (Museum für Energiegeschichte(n) n.d.: 1f).

Heavy charcoal irons with a chimney, like the one shown in the exhibition (see figures 2 and 5), had an advantage in comparison to the externally heated ones: ironing work no longer needed to be interrupted to reheat the iron. The supply of heat was continuous. Despite the saved time, the work didn’t get easier: housewives reported headaches and nausea caused by the coal fumes, and the ashes and coal dust ruining the laundry (Gerber et al. 2012: 46). The corporate actors who pushed the electrification of the household framed these iron “dragons” (“Drachen”,  see figure 2) as a symbol of backwardness.

Figure 2: The electric iron was supposed to defeat the “dragons”. This advertisement from the 1930s shows how the electrical industry, in this case the AEG, declared war on charcoal irons.

The first electric iron produced in Germany was made by the Telegraphen-Anstalt Pöge in Chemnitz in 1892 (LoeCherbach 2011: 224). Around this time, gas irons were a competitor to electric irons. At the beginning of the 20th century, gas infrastructure had already been well-established in many German cities, whereas the electrification of the household had just slowly started. In 1910, only 3.5% of households in Berlin had electricity, in 1925 it was 25%, in 1927 50%, and in 1933 the number had grown to 70%. Gas as well as electricity were mainly used for lighting at first (König 2013: 119).

With efforts being made to rationalize housework and household organization, this new energy infrastructure was supposed to be used for appliances as well. This started out as a luxury and was only affordable to the wealthy. Household appliances became a status symbol and stood for progress and modernity (Heßler 2001: 77). At the same time, power companies aimed to boost electricity usage in private households. Hence they launched big advertising campaigns for electric appliances (see figure 3) and even lowered the price for electricity (Tetzlaff 1993: 12-17). During the interwar period, it was the iron that became the first electric household appliance to reach a status of mass popularity. In 1928, 56.0% of Berlin households with access to electricity also had an electric iron. For better comparison: the vacuum cleaner came in second with 27.5%, and larger appliances like washing machines and refrigerators ranked under 1% (Heßler 2001: 61).

Figure 3: Power companies advertised for electric ironing with illustrations like this one. In the early phases of household electrification, when electricity was primarily used for lighting, the appliances were plugged directly into the light socket. 

At first housewives, the primary users of electric irons, had to be convinced of the advantages of the new technology. Energy companies and manufacturers of electric appliances countered the initial skepticism not only with economic and technical incentives, such as cheaper prices for the appliances through mass production, cheaper electricity specifically for ironing (“Bügelstrom”) and technical solutions to prevent the iron from overheating. Advertising for electric irons was characterized by promises of making housework easier (Gerber et al. 2012: 47f, Museum für Energiegeschichte(n) n.d.: 4).

And ironing indeed became easier. Electric irons were lighter and weighed only a fraction of the heavy charcoal irons. They were easier to handle, more efficient and reduced the amount of time needed to iron one article of clothing. New technical features like steam and (fabric-specific) temperature regulation amplified those advantages (Gerber et al. 2012: 48).

However, the promise of easier housework (see figure 4) was unsustainable. Looking closely, it can be seen that while some aspects indeed became physically lighter, easier and more efficient through technological change, the amount of work did not decrease. On the contrary: as Ruth Schwartz Cowan demonstrated in More Work for Mother (1983), a gendered increase of work was implied in the mechanization of the household. Because of new standards for hygiene and cleanliness as well as technological changes in the process of doing laundry (new detergents, washing machines), the amount of laundry increased significantly during this time period (Jaekel 1993: 134ff). The societal expectations that were usually addressed towards women, regarding the frequency that clothes and other household textiles should be changed and washed, increased. Furthermore, new fabrics brought more challenges that weren’t solvable by the improved temperature regulation in the latest irons: synthetics and semi-synthetics were also more sensitive towards washing at high temperatures or scrubbing with a brush or washboard, which was still popular at this point (ibid.).

Fig. 4: This advertisement for the AEG Leichtbügler “Perfect” (i.e. light/easy iron) is one of many advertisements for electric irons that use the topos of lightness and ease (“Leichtigkeit”).

Since the 1950s, so-called “non-iron” (“bügelfrei”) fabrics were being advertised and started to gain popularity. Even with those fabrics that promised to make ironing completely obsolete, the amount of housework only marginally decreased. Contemporary advertising claimed that one could even wash textiles made of those fabrics daily and air dry them overnight. Frequent washing was not only possible but necessary for these early synthetics because they made the people wearing them sweat easily and were more prone to getting dirty (Jaekel 1993: 136).

Apart from the direct shift of work from ironing to washing (or other alternative mechanical smoothing methods such as the steamer), new textiles in the second half of the 20th century created an indirect shift of work from ironing during regular use to flattening fabrics during manufacturing. This shift occurred at the expense of the workers. Non-iron shirts from non-synthetic materials are soaked in liquid chemicals. This poses a high health risk for those exposed to fumes in the factories (Svedman et al. 2019; Muthu 2015: 55). The production of synthetic fibers and the chemical treatment also have an impact on the environment. The chemical residues stay in the groundwater for a long time because they do not easily degrade biologically (Muthu 2015: 173). In addition, it is estimated that the use of formaldehyde resins is responsible for the release of about one ton of formaldehyde exhaust into the air per year by just a single factory (ibid.: 313).

It remains to be seen if there will be no more ironing in the future. Dress code and conventions continue to change and intersect with technological developments and the environment. This review of the iron illustrates these interdependencies and shows why a purely technological narrative of progress in terms of lightness falls short.

Figure 5: The exhibition cabinet is located on the second floor of the main building of TU Berlin near room H2051. Four irons (charcoal iron (around 1850), AEG Electric Travel Iron (1930s), AEG Leichtbügler Typ Perfect L (1960s), Dampfbügler AEG Typ E BE 0004 (around 1980)) and a non-iron shirt (1970s) are on exhibit. 

This text is part of the student exhibition within the scope of the “Mechanization of the Household” Project Seminar in cooperation with the Deutsches Technikmuseum. The exhibition takes place from 01.11.2023 until 31.03.2024 on the second floor of the main building of TU Berlin in the glass cabinet near room H2051. Curators: John Damm, Tiffany Thanh Phuong Dao, Leandro Fangmann, Victoria Müller, Tjark Nentwig, Kathrin Tschida.


Figure 1: Electric ironing has become the favourite chore of housewifes, AEG 1909. Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin (SDTB), FA AEG-Telefunken, Signatur: I.2.060 P-02966.

Figure 2: Many of these dragons are still alive and can be defeated by electric AEG-irons, AEG 1933. Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin (SDTB), FA AEG-Telefunken, Signatur: I.2.060 P-02973.

Figure 3: Electric ironing. Elektrizitätswerk Bern o.J. Taken from: Museum für Energiegeschichte(n). (o.D.): S. 3.

Figure 4: Floatingly easy ironing, technically perfect, elegant shape, indestructible steel soleplate, AEG “Perfect” light iron, AEG 1962/63. Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin (SDTB), FA AEG-Telefunken, Signatur: I.2.060 P-03014.

Figure 5: The exhibition showcase on the 2nd floor of the main building of TU Berlin near room 2051. Photo: Kathrin Tschida.


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dpa. (2016, 21.04.). Bügeln und Toilette putzen sind unbeliebteste Hausarbeiten. Süddeutsche Zeitung GmbH. (accessed on 09.10.2023).

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Muthu, S. S. (ed.) (2015). Handbook of Sustainable Apparel Production. Taylor & Francis.

Svedman, C., Engfeldt, M. und Malinauskiene, L. (2019). “Textile Contact Dermatitis. How Fabrics Can Induce Dermatitis”. In: Current Treatment Options in Allergy 6, p. 103–111.

Tetzlaff, S. (1993). “Laß mich hinein…!” Die Eroberung der Haushalte durch die Elektrizitätswirtschaft. In: Museum der Arbeit (ed.), Das Paradies kommt wieder–: zur Kulturgeschichte und Ökologie von Herd, Kühlschrank und Waschmaschine. VSA-Verlag.

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Redaktion (1. November 2023). No more ironing? Lightness as a promise of progress. TGTUBlog. Abgerufen am 21. Juli 2024 von

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