Fiber-wearing humans have been pressing creases out of their clothing for hundreds of years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, flat pieces of iron forged with a handle — originally known as “sadirons,” and then, quite creatively, as “flatirons” — would be heated in a fire and then used to flatten wrinkles in freshly washed and dried clothes.
A flat surface was required for this work, and women who needed to iron clothes would do so either on an existing table — risking scorch marks or dirt on clean clothes — or on a flat board placed between two chairs. This set-up worked reasonably well if all components were sturdy, but allowed very little maneuvering room or ergonomic turning of difficult curves and corners.
Today, those who iron their own clothes or press fabric for sewing (I confess to being the latter, only) tend to use a collapsible ironing board that can be purchased in any home goods store. You probably know what it looks like, but here is a link just to refresh your memory. (No, of course that is not an affiliate link. It’s WALMART.) And if you clicked on this article, there’s a good chance you’re wondering about the connecting link between a-board-between-two-kitchen-chairs and the screechy, wobbling collapsible table we use today.
The answer is quite a bit more sophisticated than what we use today, as a matter of fact.
In 1892, Sarah Boone, an entrepreneurial dressmaker with a knack for mechanical improvement, was issued a government patent for her hinged ironing board. She had been born into slavery in 1832 as Sarah Marshall, and had left the Deep South after the Civil War with her husband, James Boone. They settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where she sewed professionally and eventually developed a contraption to improve the process of ironing shirt sleeves. A fabric-covered ironing board already existed at this time, but it was bulky, cumbersome, and not ideal for pressing delicate dresses with narrow sleeves.
Boone’s updated model of the ironing board featured long, thin, fabric-padded arms that could be reversed and turned over for ease of garment manipulation. She wrote that the object of her invention was, “to produce a cheap, simple, convenient, and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies garments.”
Boone was not the first Black woman in US history to receive a patent for an invention — that honor went to Sarah Goode in 1888 for the fold-out cabinet bed — but she was one of a very small number in the 19th century to do so. An invention of any kind is an impressive accomplishment, but Boone’s is particularly noteworthy, considering that she had been illiterate for most of her life, and only learned to read and write shortly before turning sixty and filing for her patent. She studied many other drawings and mechanical diagrams in order to turn out the illustration that is shown at the top of this article.
The road to recognition as an inventor was not a short one. Sarah Boone applied for her patent in July 1891 and had to wait nine months before receiving official confirmation of her work. A combination of bureaucratic red tape and racist misogyny pushed the contributions of Black women to the back of the queue.
By a happy accident of my own writing schedule and the schedule of the U.S. Patent Office, this article appears in virtual print on the same day Mrs. Boone received her patent: April 26, 1892.
After what must have been a jubilant day of recognition for her hard work and clever development, Sarah Boone faded again into obscurity. She passed away in 1904.
I had some difficulty finding images with which to illustrate this piece. Sarah Boone, as aforementioned, was born into slavery, and did not lead a life of glamor and glitz and countless sessions in the photographer’s studio. The picture I have chosen is the one I see most frequently cited in articles about her life; however, the style of the dress in that photo is from the 1880’s, when she would have been in her fifties, and the photo seems to depict either a younger woman than fifty or a fifty-something lady who has aged almost imperceptibly. Could that picture really depict Sarah Boone? Yes. Could the photo below depict Sarah Boone? Perhaps — but this photo is also used in articles that speak of Sarah Goode, the cabinet-bed inventor and first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent. They are not the same woman, but the Internet, apparently, does not care to discern.
I am saddened by the fact that Sarah Boone’s contribution to a fixture of domestic work has been largely forgotten. Somehow I am even more sad that her likeness is so hard to pin down. It is certainly understandable that a woman of modest means in the late 19th century might never have had her “image struck.” But the fact that two photos that keep cropping up with her name attached — one of which is clearly someone else entirely — disappoints me because it almost seems that no one cared about her enough to verify what she looked like before pasting a quickly obtained, “old-fashioned” image of a young Black woman to the top of an online article.
I bear some of the blame here, of course. I chose a photo that I saw represented most frequently in my research, but unfortunately I can’t verify for sure that that is Sarah Boone. We may never know. Her face has, perhaps, been lost to history — or at least covered up by some other lady.
Her work lives on, clearly defined and recorded by the United States Patent Office, but I wish Sarah Boone the person had been recorded, too.
Other Sources Used:
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