BY JIM MERCIER
I think we may be surprised to learn that many unusual products were once made here in Racine. Being faithful readers of the Belle City Magazine, we have learned that some of those products included baskets, fanning mills, stools, incubators, cigars, shoes, radios, even beer! Well, now we can add one more interesting item to our list…ironing boards!
The name of the company that once manufactured these ironing boards (or technically, ironing tables) was known as the Racine Trunk Company. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking…don’t you mean the Racine Ironing Table Company, or something like that? Well, I’ll explain everything shortly.)
The Racine Trunk Co. was organized in 1884 by John Wadewitz and his two sons, Theodore and Herman, along with A.B. Augustine. The company manufactured trunks, travelling bags, and wood novelties in their spacious brick factory, which was located at 1003-1015 Superior Street, now, 947 Superior, a block north of State Street. In 1888, the company was incorporated, with John Wadewitz assuming the role of president.
The company started operations with only one building, but expanded four times as demand for their trunks and bags increased. Over 60 skilled workers were once employed at the plant, and their products were shipped throughout the entire United States. By the way, did you know that the entire factory complex is still standing?
Ok, now let’s move on to ironing boards! I mentioned earlier that trunks, travelling bags, and wood novelties were manufactured at the factory. Well, ironing boards were one of those wood novelties. As additional sources of income were considered, it was determined that ironing boards would be a natural fit for the firm. Machinery used for the manufacture of trunks could easily be adjusted for producing ironing boards and other wood-based products.
The company began producing an ironing board called the Simplex, which had limited success. However, things would soon change when one of their employees, John Slama, was granted a patent in April 1925 for an adjustable ironing board.
It’s interesting to note that in the 1921 Racine City Directory, John Slama’s occupation was listed as a salesman. However, this “salesman-turned-inventor” was responsible for making the common ironing board much easier to operate.
In submitting his patent, Slama wrote that he made “new and useful improvements in ironing boards, particularly to foldable and adjustable ironing boards…to provide an ironing board which is capable of adjustments so as to vary the height from the floor. The object of this invention is to provide an ironing board which may be folded to a collapsed position, whereby it will occupy a minimum amount of space to be stored conveniently when not in use.” These ironing boards were called the “Slama Adustable Ironing Table” (with operating instructions placed on each unit) and proved to be quite successful.
Now, my fellow historians, get out there and share your new-found knowledge of something unusual made in Racine!
Local historian Jim Mercier is an avid collector of Racine historical memorabilia and displays some of his collection in the Racine Business Center’s Spirit of Entrepreneur’s Exhibit.