What can you tell us about a wooden ironing board that was purchased at the Eastern Market flea market more than 10 years ago? It is of an interesting design. A stamp on the back reads “Manufactured by The College Mill, Takoma Park, Washington, D.C.” This was apparently part of Washington Adventist University.
— Delores Bushong
and Gloria Kim, Washington
There’s something fitting about a Christian college having an active woodworking program. After all, wasn’t Joseph a carpenter?
Answer Man should say a once-active woodworking program, for the College Mill no longer turns out ironing boards, which were just one of many items that students built between 1928 and 1960 on the campus on Flower Avenue in Takoma Park.
The university itself dates back to 1904, when it was founded as the Washington Training College, an affiliate of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In 1907, it became the Washington Foreign Mission Seminary, the name reflecting a narrower focus. Seven years later the name was changed again, to the Washington Missionary College. Long-time Washingtonians may know it by the name it had from 1961 to 2009: Columbia Union College. Five years ago the name was changed again, to Washington Adventist University.
But about that mill: Peruse copies of the college yearbook, Golden Memories, and you will come across numerous references to this interesting industrial operation. A little poem in the 1929 yearbook proclaimed: “Three grown men and thirty-seven boys/ All making ironing boards, and a terrible lot of noise.”
In that year alone, more than 40,000 ironing boards were made at the College Mill. And nifty ironing boards they were, too, with legs that folded neatly into the base. A patent on the design was issued in 1934 to Robert Van Seyle, Leslie Leroy Smith and Edward Judge Barnes, who assigned it to the college.
The ironing board was sometimes referred to as the Plymouth, with labels proclaiming, “Solid as a rock. Opens and closes with one motion.”
Other items of furniture made at the mill included ladders; bookcases; a low-slung, canvas-covered rocker called the Takoma Chair (Patent No. 1986381); and an Adirondack-style design called the lawn chair.
In 1942, 35,000 chairs rolled off the assembly line. In 1949, you could buy a four-shelf corner bookcase for $11.95 — assembly required. In 1955, 20,000 stepladders were churned out.
That year, the College Mill introduced a pricier product: a 14-foot, $525 mahogany boat suitable for an outboard motor. “It is practically impossible to upset it,” read a description. “Some idea of the amount of labor needed to turn out the runabout may be gained from the fact that some 1,400 brass screws are used to hold it together.”
One might wonder why a college would have a shop that built ironing boards, ladders and boats. Answer Man supposes that there are a few reasons. First, it provided income for the school. In 1929 the school reported a profit from the mill of $10,000.
“In 1930s dollars, that was some money,” said Lee Marie Wisel, director of the Weis Library at Washington Adventist and a graduate of the university.
Student wages were plowed back into tuition. But surely just as important was the notion that work is ennobling. Does not the Bible sing the praises of honest toil? As the Washington Adventist yearbook noted, “judicious labor is a healthful tonic for the human race.”
For many years, the Seventh-day Adventist Church had an even bigger connection to furniture. In 1951 the couple that owned Oregon-based Harris Pine Mills, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of unfinished furniture, bequeathed the company to the church. Students who attended Adventist boarding schools on the East and West coasts often worked at Harris Pine factories. (Harris Pine declared bankruptcy in 1987, a decision that rankled some church members.)
The College Mill ceased operations in 1960. The space it once occupied is now home to facilities services, IT, campus security and WGTS, the university’s contemporary Christian radio station.
Today, College Mill ironing boards routinely show up on eBay. There’s one in the university’s collection, too. “I know its provenance,” librarian Lee told Answer Man. “My mother purchased it in 1947 or ’48. She used it for 20 or 30 years.”
Then she gave it to Lee. “I ironed a lot of shirts on that board,” she said.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com.