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Florence Cole as a child

Old Victorian and Edwardian
mangles, as used on washdays

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What mangles were used for

Before the arrival of spin dryers around the 1950s, all but the very poorest of households had a mangle. It was used on washday to remove the majority of the water from the wash after washing and after each rinse.

Sketch of a woman using a mangle, early 1900s

Sketch of a woman mangling. Detail from a larger sketch, courtesy of Blandford Town Museum, www.blandfordtownmuseum.org

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How mangles worked

The mangle was a heavy contraption about four or five feet high with a handle that turned two rollers. Wet items were fed through the rollers which squeezed out the water.

There was a screw on top to adjust the distance between the rollers according to the thickness of the fabric. For blankets, the screw was let out as far as possible.

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Storing the mangle

As the mangle was so large and took up so much room, it was kept outside the back door with a sheet of tarpaulin over it to protect it from the weather. This was usual practice in the Victorian terraces where I grew up in the early 1900s. (Later when I was married, mangles were smaller and mine fitted in to the kitchen of my 1930s/1940s house.)

old Victoirian / Edwardian mangle

Old Victorian or Edwardian mangle for removing water from wet laundry.

In good weather the mangling could be done outside where the mangle stood, but in bad weather it had to be rolled indoors, into the scullery.

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Doing the mangling

Wet items were folded as neatly as possible and then fed through the rollers. A tin bath underneath caught the drips.

When my brothers and I came home from school for our mid-day meal, mangling was still in progress. A lot of energy was needed for it, and I had to help by holding the sheets as straight as I could while my mother turned the handle of the mangle. It was by no means unusual for children to get their fingers caught in the rollers.

When the items had gone through the rollers, they almost looked as if they had been ironed already, but there were still quite damp.

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Mangle damage to buttons

Broken buttons on clothes

In the 1940s, while I was growing up, it was not unusual to see people with broken buttons, almost certainly because someone had risked using the mangle on them.

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As there were no zips, clothes fastened with buttons. Some were extremely decorative, but the problem was that they would not go through the rollers of the mangle.

Card of square linen buttons, soft enough to go through rollers of a mangle

Left: card of square linen buttons as bought from a shop. Courtesy of Di Duck.

These buttons would pass safely through the rollers of a mangle.

Sometimes, women risked it, rather than having to wring the water out by hand, but then the buttons invariably chipped under the pressure of the rollers, even with the top adjustment loosened.

Round linen button, soft enough to go safely through rollers of a mangle

Right; detail of a round button. Courtesy of Di Duck.

This buttons would pass safely through the rollers of a mangle.

So buttons on clothes that were often washed, particularly on men's shirts, were made of woven linen so that they wouldn't break under the pressure of the mangle rollers.

Clothes like heavy overalls needed heavier buttons. The solution was to have buttons with metal shanks which, rather than being sewn in place, were poked through small holes and held in place with studs or clips. The clips were rather like short hair grips. Then every time that the item was washed, the buttons were removed and then clipped back into place afterwards. The holes for the shanks were sewn just like regular button holes except that they were much smaller and round.

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