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Leaders in Innovation

2024 NIHF Inductee Mary Florence Potts: A Practical Problem Solver

One of the greatest things an inventor can do is to make everyday tasks safer and easier. More than 150 years ago, Mary Florence Potts did just that with her invention of the cold-handle sad iron – an achievement we are proud to recognize with her inclusion in our 2024 class of National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductees.


Seeing the Need for Innovation

Potts was born Mary Florence Webber on Nov. 1, 1850. When she was growing up, the popular tool for smoothing wrinkles out of clothes and linens was a sad iron, named from the Old English “sad,” meaning “solid.” These irons were cast entirely in solid metal, and they became especially popular following the invention of the cast-iron cook stove in the 1820s, which made it easier to heat the irons. As one iron cooled, another could be taken off the stove.

Despite the popularity of early sad irons, Potts recognized that these tools presented several difficulties. Because they cooled quickly, users needed to own and heat several irons at once, and because the handle was attached to the base, these irons would also become hot. Users needed to wear a heavy glove or use a potholder to handle them, and they frequently suffered burns and blisters. Additionally, these irons were exceptionally heavy, and though an early improvement offered a lighter wooden handle, the handle often charred during the heating process, which of course weakened its structure.


Developing a Better Design

While she and her husband were raising their young son in Iowa, Potts began solving the problems she’d noted with existing sad irons.

She made her iron cooler and lighter by creating a hollow design that could be filled with a substance that wouldn’t conduct heat, such as cement or plaster of Paris. Because her design was pointed on both ends, it was also easier to push back and forth. Potts made the bottom and ends of her iron thicker, which allowed heat to radiate where it was needed most, and her design also retained heat longer, so users could iron more items without needing to reheat it.

Potts patented her wooden-handled sad iron in 1870. The following year, she introduced another improvement, patenting a sad iron with a wooden handle that could detach from the iron as it sat on the stove. This innovation allowed users to work with a cool handle while they kept additional iron bases heating up on the stove, resulting in a much safer and easier way to iron.

Potts’ new, improved irons were featured at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, which was the first official World’s Fair held in the U.S.


Marketing a New Iron

Once Potts had developed a successful new iron design, she wanted to get her invention into consumers’ hands. However, she lacked the financial resources to manufacture and sell her invention on her own, so she began working with third-party manufacturers.

These manufacturers marketed her invention as Mrs. Potts’ Cold Handle Sad Iron, highlighting the fact that it was designed by a woman. They sold the irons in a set including three irons of varying weights, one handle and a stand. The 4-pound iron, suitable for light work, featured one round end for polishing or glossing; the 5-pound iron was meant for general use; and the 6-pound iron could be used for tablecloths, sheets and other large linens.

In total, Potts held seven U.S. patents. In the 1890s, when her patent rights expired, many ironworks began to copy her sad iron design. Some advertised their products as the Mrs. Potts Iron. Commonly used well into the 1930s, Potts’ iron designs were eventually surpassed by the rise of electric irons. Now, Mrs. Potts Irons are popular among antique dealers and collectors who recognize the value of Potts’ impact on the ease and safety of household chores.


Meet More of Our Legendary 2024 Inductees

To learn more about the new National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees whose stories will inspire generations through our events, museum exhibits and invention education programs, visit our website.

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