Posted from 03/10/07:
DEAR HELAINE AND JOE: Here is a picture of an American Beauty electric iron that I purchased at a thrift store.
It appears to be mint and in the original box.
Can you tell me its history and if it has any monetary value? Thanks. - S. A. S., Uniontown, Pa.
DEAR S. A. S.: Ironing has been a laborious chore ever since man (or woman) started smoothing fabric with flat rocks way back when. A little later, irons that were heated on a stove were heavy and cumbersome and there was always a risk that soot from the wood stove would soil the freshly laundered item being pressed.
Ironing works because the heat loosens the polymer molecules in the fabric and then the weight of the iron smooths the fibers out and the garments then hold their shape after they cool. The first electric iron was invented in 1882 by Henry W. Seely, and it weighed an arm numbing 15 pounds! It was heated using a carbon arc, which was very dangerous.
Improvements came fairly quickly, and soon the electric iron was both safer and a bit lighter in weight. The American Electrical Heater Company was founded in Detroit in 1894, but they did not start making the American Beauty line of clothes irons until around 1912. They continued to make them until around 1995.
The early American Beauty irons were utilitarian and were not very exciting from a design point of view. American Electric Heater promoted them as instruments dedicated to "Making Ironing Day Easier - for both the June Bride and Every Other Woman." However, some of their mid-century irons are a little more exciting and have been included in the collection of the Baltimore Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art as examples of 20th century design.
In 1940 the company patented an American Beauty iron that had a colored Lucite insert in the middle of the otherwise black handle. Lucite, a clear plastic that was discovered by Dupont in 1931, was so clear and strong that it could be used in windshields and in gunner's turrets during World War II.
Although the American Beauty iron with the Lucite insert in the handle was patented in 1940, it was not produced until around 1947. It came in two shades, red and orange, with the red examples being far more common than the orange ones. Today, the American Beauty irons with the red Lucite are worth about $50 to $60 for insurance purposes and the much rarer orange, or amber, examples are valued in the $75 to $100 range.
Unfortunately, the picture that S. A. S. submitted does not show the handle so we do not know exactly what it looks like. The model number on the red Lucite irons was 79AB, and on the amber examples is 33AB. On the box shown in the picture, the model number appears to be 77AB, which would mean that this model does not have a Lucite insert. But we cannot be sure we have read the box correctly even with a magnifying glass.
It is our opinion that this particular iron is from the third quarter of the 20th century circa 1960, and the best part about it is that it is mint-in-box with its original hang tag. The current insurance replacement value, if that is accurate, is between $20 and $30.
(Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of the "Country Living: American Glassware - What is it? What is it Worth?" (House of Collectibles, $19.95). Questions can by mailed to them at P.O. Box 12208, Knoxville, TN 37912-0208.)