While cataloging artifacts from the Schuyler House, part of Saratoga National Historical Park, we came across a strange looking, elongated metal rod. After a bit of research, we realized that this artifact is the inner rod of a goffering iron.
A goffering iron, which is also known as a tally iron, is a device used for pressing pleats, ruffles, and ridges into fabric. They have been used since the sixteenth century on everything from Elizabethan ruffs to Victorian ruffles. Though the type of clothing changed, there seemed always to be a need for irons that not only smoothed fabric, but also gave it shape.
The design of the goffering iron – utilitarian and simple – did not change much from the 16th through the 20th century. When an object lacks datable diagnostic qualities, artifacts from the same provenience can help to date by association. Because most of the artifacts found with this tool at the Schuyler House date to the 19th century, it is likely that the goffering iron does as well. After looking through examples of Victorian dresses, it is easy to see the ruffles that were created by the use of goffering irons.
Aside from ironing ruffles into dresses, goffering irons could also be used to frill fabric on collars and other clothing edges. One can only imagine how much work, time, and accidental burns it took to make six rows of ruffles at the bottom of the dress pictured above. Because of this, new inventions came out in the late 19th century that made the process easier and faster.
Goffering was primarily done after the article of clothing was laundered. In the French print below from 1876, women around a table of freshly laundered clothing are adding back the frills and ruffles that came out in the wash. The woman in yellow is actually holding what appears to be a goffering iron rod. For more information about how we use paintings and prints to study material culture, check out our blog post titled “Fine Art: An Archeologist’s Best Friend.”
After researching this blog post I started thinking about clothing care for my own wardrobe, and being thankful that hand washing and goffering irons are now obsolete. What types of cleaning implements do we use today that people in the future may see as old-fashioned? What technological advances are you most grateful for?
- Barnes, Frank T. Hooks, Rings & Other Things: An Illustrated Index of New England Iron, 1660-1860. Hanover, MA: The Christopher Publishing House, 1988.
- The Free Dictionary Website, definition of “goffering iron” http://www.thefreedictionary.com/goffering+iron
- Old and Interesting Website: “Ironing frills – from Elizabethan ruffs to Victorian ruffles” http://www.oldandinteresting.com/fluting-goffering-irons.aspx
- Plummer, Don. Colonial Wrought Iron: the Sorber Collection. Ocean Pines, MD: Skipjack Press, 1999.
- Profimedia Website, “Ironing room in a laundry” http://www.profimedia.si/picture/ironing-room-in-a-laundry/0090807693/.
- Victoriana Website, “1867 evening dress” image http://www.victoriana.com