Fewer Wrinkles in Time

Flat-iron-stove 2

One of many ways to speed up the tedious ironing process was to always have an iron on the fire, ready to use, when the one in use cooled off. [Photo by By –Kuerschner, 2008 via Wikimedia Commons]

I did not originally plan to treat modern topics this soon. I was going to finish reviewing several important technological and cultural developments between about 1750 and 1850, then systematically examine the key factors in the education and careers of the successful inventors and innovators whose work led to industrial revolutions and the resultant changes in everyday life. Finally, I was going to evaluate what lessons the historical record held for engineering education as preparation for invention and innovation in the present and future. But, “the best laid plans of mice and men” have once more “gang astray”. The cause of this digression? A remembrance in the Wall Street Journal on October 7, 2013, with the headline “Scientist Ruth Benerito Ironed Out Wrinkle Problem With Easy-Care Cotton”. This prolific inventor, whom the New York Times eulogized as the person “who made cotton cloth behave”, helped make major advances on an important textile problem. Since advances in textile processing were a major part of the Industrial Revolution, I decided to add her to my inventor database, because comparing her education and career path with those of the earlier inventors who engineered the Industrial Revolution might be enlightening. So, today, we will look briefly at the domestic drudgery which she alleviated by the work for which she is best remembered.

For background, here is a brief summary of her work. Dr. Ruth Mary Rogan Benerito (January 12, 1916 – October 5, 2013) was a physical chemist, co-inventor on over 50 patents, a dedicated teacher, and an enthusiastic and talented researcher who understood the importance of solving practical problems. She put her good education to use, working with other scientists on a broad range of projects, and insistently acknowledging the efforts of the team. Significant contributions stemmed from applying colloidal chemistry to develop absorbable intravenous nutritional supplements and chemical modification of cellulose, which led to wrinkle-free cottons, as well as flame-resistant and stain-resistant fabrics, and improved laboratory glassware. Her products were not just simple theories or mere laboratory curiosities, but were transformed into commercial products which affected millions of lives: not only was she instrumental in creating wrinkle-free cloth which relieved fabric care-givers from hours of drudgery at the ironing board, her IV supplements saved the lives of seriously wounded Korean War servicemen and easy-care cotton is credited with saving the United States cotton industry during the mid 20th century, as synthetic fibers and fabrics ate into cotton’s market share.

Like many Industrial Revolution inventors, Dr. Benerito did not scoff at applied research; she brought serious, high-level scientific knowledge and reasoning to improving the quality of life by looking at wrinkles in cotton cloth. Eliminating wrinkles in clothing may sound trivial in the grand scheme of things, not nearly as glamourous as “nanotechnology” or “biomolecular engineering” or any of the other current descriptions for the trendy innovations promising to lead us into various utopian futures. There are, however, many indicators that creasing and wrinkling have commanded serious attention, time, and energy from our ancestors.

The War on Wrinkles is not a recent cultural concern. The Romans, with their pleated garments, must have eliminated unwanted wrinkles and reinforced the desired ones along the pleats. Whalebone smoothing boards and smoothing stones have been found among ninth-century Viking grave goods. Numerous 19th-century patents for clothes stretchers and hangers, improved irons, and other pressing paraphernalia promised to ease the burden of inherently wrinkled fabric.

The linguistic evidence corroborates the importance of the engineering and marketing efforts devoted to this problem. At different times in the past decades, a fabric which needs little or no dewrinkling has been described as non-crush, crease-resistant, crease-resisting, wrinkle-free, wash-and-wear, easy-care, permanent-press, no-iron, non-iron or iron-free. (This ever-growing plethora of terms complicates tracking down historical sources.)

For a rough quantitative estimate of the minimum time spent on personal ironing, let’s assume it takes 7 minutes of actual ironing time per garment ironed. This is a conservative number, which assumes simple garments, without ruffles or other hard-to-press features, and an electric iron, which heats up quickly and has no reheating delays between garments. Each simple change of clothes (a shirt and pair of pants or simple skirt) would require at least 14 minutes of time at the ironing board. For a family of four, this means nearly an hour of simply for ironing every time the family changed clothes. Ironing itself was not the only time-consuming task necessary for conquering wrinkles in the past. Preparation of ironing was not as quick and simple as unloading a modern washer or dryer. Clean laundry would be starched, hung out to dry, and then, to achieve a uniform dampness for good ironing, sprinkled, rolled and stored for several hours in a cool place to await ironing. No wonder clothes were worn longer between washings than today and detachable collars and cuffs were popular!

Ironing effort was not limited to clothing. The sheer quantity of textiles we use has always made caring for them a daunting task As late as the 20th century households were filled with shirts, skirts, trousers, bedclothes, undergarments, draperies, household linens, and even neckties and cravats, which were all ironed after each laundering.

Around the turn of the 20th century, efforts began to cut off the evil at its source by finding fabrics that did not have the unwanted wrinkles in the first place. The Shakers developed the first “iron-free” fabric in that time, according to the New York Times. Since then, many processes to combat creases have been developed, with the first commercial success being the English, crease-resistant Tootal Ties, initially sold in the 1930s. Dr. Benerito’s contributions began in the 1950s and were based on cross-linking the cellulose molecules, analogous to the processes used for curling hair with “permanents” and for vulcanizing rubber. At the same time, other research groups were actively developing, patenting, and commercializing other processes and chemical reagents for preventing wrinkles. However, combating creases is not a thing of the past. Research and development continues and new products and processes designed to win the War on Wrinkles are still being developed, patented, and marketed. Thanks to Dr. Benerito and her fellow researchers, in the space of a few decades, millions people have come to take freedom from the drudgery of ironing for granted, just as we enjoy the benefits of other inventions, old and new. Maybe that is the true measure of successful innovation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOUZZu7CoTI (Video on the occasion of MIT Lemuelson Lifetime Achievement Award)
“Scientist Ruth Benerito Ironed Out Wrinkle Problem With Easy-Care Cotton” Wall Street Journal 7 October 2013.
“Ruth Benerito, Who Made Cotton Cloth Behave, Dies at 97″ New York Times 7 October 2013.
Crease resisting fabrics by J. T. Marsh, Reinhold Publishing. New York. 1962