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A Pressing Interest : Malibou Lake Man’s Collection of Irons Spans Centuries of Designs

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

John McCormack flicks on a switch in his Malibou Lake basement and the fluorescent bulbs wheeze into action, illuminating shelves full of clothes irons, tables stacked with irons, irons hanging off the walls, antique irons everywhere.

And that’s just the basement.

“I like ‘em all,” McCormack says solemnly, gazing around him.

Stashed away in McCormack’s house on Malibou Lake are the fruits of nearly 50 years of searching flea markets, thrift stores and estate sales, amounting to the equivalent of a history museum devoted to the changing technology of irons.

In fact, McCormack gave part of his collection to the Stagecoach Inn Museum in Thousand Oaks several years ago in the name of his son, Phillip, and the irons are now part of the museum’s permanent exhibit.

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But he has plenty of irons left.

The 78-year-old’s obsession with irons--which he prefers to call “pressing devices”--began in 1947 with a trip to a Salvation Army store. There he found a 1905 Hotpoint. It was a simple little iron and McCormack took a fancy to it, thinking it would look quite nice mounted on a lamp he was making.

Then he decided he would like a second lamp, which led him on a yearlong odyssey to find a matching 1905 Hotpoint. Problem was, he picked up a few more irons along the way. By the time he found the match, he was a full-fledged collector.

McCormack has no idea how many irons he owns. But it’s possible to get an idea by counting the gasoline- and kerosene-powered ones sitting on one small table--32. Then multiply that number by the 10 other small tables around the room, add in those sitting on floor-to-ceiling shelves, and it seems safe to say at least 1,000.

Until McCormack opens another door.

“Do you want to see some more irons?” he asks, ushering a visitor into another room, dizzyingly dense with more pressing devices.

Counting now seems a foolish proposition.

He keeps his favorites, along with the original two lamps, upstairs in the living room. The dozen shelves full of irons there look practically paltry in comparison to the thicket of them downstairs. But contained on those shelves are examples from almost every type of iron known to man.

“This is a 200-year-old Chinese iron I picked up in Hong Kong,” McCormack said, holding up something resembling a small frying pan. “Or maybe it was Beijing.”

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He picked up a primitive-looking object.

“This one is from Uruguay, South America,” McCormack said. “I just picked this up about two months ago.”

The Chinese irons--he has a table full of them downstairs as well--are the oldest McCormack owns. Most of his collection is from the 19th Century and represents the never-ending struggle to come up with a better way to press sheets, shirts and dresses.

The most rudimentary irons are just slabs of metal, meant to be heated on stoves or in fires. Then come box irons, hollowed-out metal containers that were filled with burning charcoal or hot wood.

Every new kind of iron was supposed to hold heat better, or to make things easier on the person wielding the heavy, hot object. McCormack even has a soapstone iron. Its inventor patented it in the late 19th Century, but the idea never really took off.

According to McCormack, a young woman named Mary Florence Potts had more success with her idea. Tired of having her hand singed when she picked the hot iron off the stove, Potts figured out a way to make a primitive snap-on wooden handle. The handle could be slipped on after the iron was hot.

Gasoline-, alcohol- and kerosene-powered irons were the next innovations. But McCormack pointed out a few problems with that technology.

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“There is a disadvantage to gasoline,” he said. “Because it sometimes pops off and scares the hell out of you.”

The advent of the first electric irons, made at the turn of this century, hardly slowed down the creative iron-making forces. Inventors made “tippy-toe” irons, promised as the iron you never have to lift off the fabric. Squeeze a lever and metal legs jump out of the bottom of the iron.

McCormack even has a pristine Art Deco iron made by Corning, circa 1940.

“This is the jewel,” he said, picking up the brilliant red glass object.

The only irons missing from his collection are the most modern ones.

“Plastic,” he grumbles. “They only last six months.”

And he only has one ironing board.

“It’s all I need,” McCormack said.

McCormack doesn’t have a value affixed to his collection. While he knows a few other avid iron collectors, including a friend in Philadelphia he swaps with sometimes, he concedes that it’s a fairly unusual hobby.

“You know, not many people like irons,” McCormack said.

Retired for the last 19 years, the former machinist-turned-stock-broker-turned-tool-design-engineer spends most Saturdays and Sundays combing Southern California for more irons. Asked if he is missing something in the collection, McCormack nods vigorously.

“Oh yeah,” McCormack said. “I don’t know what it is but I’ll find it.”

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