There is a special kind of heritage that lives in multiple paradoxical realms of value. It can be situated both in our collective memory- at the museums and vintage bars and also on the streets of labour. Today they may have achieved a status of antiquity, but they have been a great deal of function and utility since days of yore. Illustrating this paradox is the coal iron box that has been used to smoothen creases on clothes and crevices in our Indian society since ages.
The coal-fuelled iron box which is the predecessor of the steam and electric iron is a highly underappreciated craft. Having a whole industry built around itself, the performance of everyday laundry would be incomplete without this tool. Originating from China in the first century BC, pressing machines were in the form of metal pans that were filled with burning coal. The stretched cloth would be swayed over by the pan and the released warm air would cause the fiber to relax. Craftspeople all over the world invented methods using different materials for several years. From the late 17th century, the pressing pans were transformed into boxes which would contain coal, giving the craft an edge of efficiency and prominence. It became a long standing tool and technique for pressing fabrics and is still in use this day. The hollow box would be constructed in the shape of a spade and have an insulated handle (made out of mud, wood) on top for the user. Before the usage of charcoal in the box in the 1800s, red-hot burning coals were used to keep the press running for long. The iron box would have small funnels on its sides to ensure sufficient air flow for the coal to burn and release smoke. However, due to the excessive toxic release and soot under this design, workers demanded a safer and efficient change in design. The 1850s ushered the technology of charcoal which ensured environmental and labour safety. The vent doors (funnels) would keep the charcoal lit for long. This technique was adopted across the globe and has been carrying forward to date.
“Indian dhobi is the meekest of men.” – M.A Rutherfurd, The Indian Dhobi, The English Illustrated Magazine v25 1901
Contextualization of the craft and tradition surrounding this type of iron in the Indian socio-economic sphere leads us to a different understanding of the usage and performance around it. According to popular understanding, the dhobis, istriwallas, press wallas form the imagery for the industry that surrounds the coal iron box. The credit for the creation of such entities is often given to the East India Company who acknowledged this craft by launching it as an economic industry. Following those footsteps, the Indian government has established local laundry centers which are often referred to as dhobi ghats. A further peak in these dhobi ghats reveal the social inequalities that inhibit not only space but also living generations. Where it is often recognized that there is a special kind of wisdom and knowledge required to subjugate the wrinkles on different muslins, the cultural history of these workers are often forgotten. This industry is a testament to the materiality of caste divisions in the market. The soot on the walls of the jhuggies and the attached wash pens are symbolic of the current status of the sociality of the community. The then usage of coal emerged out of poverty and lack of better alternatives, but today the usage is majorly because of the hereditary quality of the skill and tools. Being considered a laborious profession with. In addition, the gender order that gets manipulated by the technology has also been invisibilized. Like other industries emerging from the households, ironing clothes was traditionally considered as a feminine duty until it was commercialized. To overthrow this dogma, men who entered this market preferred lifting the heavy iron load. By exhibiting the normative masculine conduct- of strength and vigor, the laundry market became heavily male-dominated. Today the face of the market is that of the iron man.
The genealogy of ironing has not been recorded enough to understand the various contexts in which different tools and engineering were produced. However, archaeological evidence shows that coal iron underwent many modifications in design and technology. Studies have shown some vintage charcoal irons used in Asia and Africa dating till the 1890s, to be decorated with sculptures of birds. While these aesthetic modifications may have led the iron boxes to be part of museums and galleries, it is important to visualize the craft and community behind it.