Object Story and Significance:

This antique sad iron and beautifully decorated trivet (or iron stand) both embody an important part of Chinese immigrant history as old implements used at a Chinese hand laundry. Sad irons (“sad” is old English for “solid”) were a type of iron made out of a triangular-shaped chunk of cast iron and so named because of their hefty weight (5 to 9 pounds). Popular in the 19th century before the convenience of an electric iron, sad irons were heated over a stovetop fire and once hot, had to be gripped with a heat protective pad or thick rag. An experienced laundryman had to know how to determine whether the iron was hot enough but not so hot that it would scorch the fabric. Operating this type of iron for long periods was hot, arduous work and when not in use, it had to be regularly cleaned, sand-papered, and greased to prevent rust and ensure it could glide smoothly and immaculately over cleaned clothing.

To protect the ironing surface, the hot iron could be temporarily rested on the accompanying trivet. The trivet was designed such that the iron could be easily slid from the bottom and back unto the ironing surface without a laundryman having to constantly lift the heavy iron. On the top of the trivet is printed an image of what looks to be an industrial Collar and Cuff Ironer (operated by hand and steam) along with the Chinese characters “矮仔鬼,” possibly a Cantonese nickname for this stout machine (printed perhaps as an advertisement). The trivet was manufactured and distributed by John Randles Inc. (founded 1864), which had a long history of furnishing laundry and restaurant supplies to Chinese businesses in New York. To introduce and sell products within the Chinese community, the company employed Chinese salesmen such as James Louie Fletcher, who used his savings, knowledge, and connections cultivated to eventually open his own long-running Chinese laundry supply store in New York Chinatown (World Trading Company in 1932 on Moscoe Street, which became United Trading Company at 190 Canal Street in 1933 and United Trading and Fletcher Inc. at 60 Mott Street in 1950).

We would love to restore and display these pieces, particularly this now quite rare trivet, in MOCA’s permanent exhibition. Conservation treatment would remove the extreme corrosion and help bring out the beautiful details.

Details of Damage:

The photographs below capture the rust and corrosion covering the entire surface of the hand iron and trivet. Click on an image to enlarge its details.

Side profile of the hand iron
Front profile of the hand iron
Close-up of the front profile
Top profile of the hand iron
Top profile of the trivet
Bottom profile of the trivet
This image of a pristinely restored trivet was taken from the blog. We would love to restore our own trivet to a similar good condition.

Post-Fire Condition:

The iron has stress cracks on all three sides that run through the thickness of the iron from the base to the top. These cracks have small gaps and losses around their break edges. The entirety of its surface exhibits rusty metallic to bright orange iron oxide corrosion. There is a loss on the upper front edge of the iron’s handle.

The trivet exhibits areas of black, red/brown (rust) and yellow corrosion within the cast decoration on the upper surface. The underside has a more stable, compact surface with the exception of loss areas on the back left foot.

With the support of your donation, we would:

  • Vacuum clean using a stiff bristle brush to remove soil accretions and areas of flaking and bright orange active corrosion
  • Mechanically clean and solvent clean to remove corrosion products and accretions
  • Apply a Tannic acid treatment to all surfaces to stabilize the corrosion and improve the visual appearance of the object
  • Coat with Paraloid B48N resin with fumed silica to prevent the surface from appearing too shiny
  • Wax all surfaces with Renaissance microcrystalline wax and dry pigments if necessary to improve surface cohesion

Total Conservation Cost: $3,000

Please help us fund their conservation! Any amount–large or small–helps!

If you would like to make a contribution towards the conservation of these Chinese hand laundry implements, please click to navigate to MOCA’s Donate Page and be sure to specify the object you would like to sponsor. Please also kindly send a brief email to to notify us of your donation.