If you’ve recently been inside a Walmart, you undoubtedly found yourself awash in a sea of cheap plastic and faux-everything. Many modern products and brands (once renowned for excellence) have been bought out and sent overseas. Typically, when this occurs, a sharp reduction in quality follows. Hence, a modern toaster can rarely be expected to last more than a year, and your new desk may crumble into a mess of plastic snaps and particle board. Fortunately, this isn’t always the case, and the shoddy construction of cheap goods can help you appreciate excellent quality when you find it. Here are five everyday items that (usually) aren’t made like they used to be.
5. Washing Machines
The first patent for a washing machine was issued in England at the end of the 17th century. Since then, hundreds of manufacturers across dozens of countries have produced their own. The washing machine was a revolutionary labor-saving device and saved countless people untold hours of dirty, hard work over the years.
During the 1950s and ’60s, a washing machine could be expected to last decades. With occasional repair (replacing a worn out belt, lubricating bearings) there was virtually nothing that could break. Washing machine body parts were crafted from iron or heavy gauge sheet metal, and essential parts were free of plastic and flimsy materials. And because of this, an inexpensive washing machine could cost more than half a months’ salary ($166 in 1960, and $154 for the machine) of the average American worker. However, such an investment could be expected to save enough hard household labor for enough years to make it worth every penny.
These days, a modern washing machine costs a lot less (relative to average salary) than it did back in the 1960s. And with all those buttons and gadgets, it’s no wonder you can’t expect it to last as long as the baby blue behemoth in your grandmother’s basement. Plastic began creeping in during the 1970s. As consumerism matured, more people opted to replace a broken machine instead of repairing it. As a result, manufacturers did as one would expect; cut costs, and sell more machines at lower and lower prices.
I suppose it’s generally a good thing when more and more people can afford such a useful machine. However, it’s hard not to be nostalgic about the days when washing machines were made with pride and built to last. That is, as long as the owner continues to replace the belt.
Furniture making is an ancient craft, and virtually all cultures have produced countless beautiful examples for millennia. Back in the 1930s, my great-grandfather, Richard sold furniture at his store in Indiana. The few tables and chairs from Richard’s store that we still have are marvelous, and the quality and classic styling are second to none. Back then and before, manufacturers produced furniture locally. Artisans and machines worked together to create gorgeous and stylish home furnishings.
These days, though, not even the very ancient is safe from the ever-tightening death grip of consumerism. And, with a few exceptions, the days of solid-oak tables and one-off hardwood chair sets are over. The Ikea generation wanted particle board, and particle board they got. Over the years, local plants shut down. The price of furniture declined, and so did the quality. Many skilled craftsmen and women continue to produce low-volume, high-quality furniture, but the vast majority of store-bought junk is just that: garbage.
Maybe next time, when its time to replace the kitchen table or living room chair, go check out the local thrift shop or antique store first. You’ll be supporting a local business, and if you’re lucky, you’ll save a buck or two and go home with something really unique and well made. After all, it survived this long didn’t it?
3. Television Sets
A television set (and a radio, for that matter) used to be a piece of furniture. A centerpiece for the living room: the pride of the 1950s suburban home. In the early days of television, may models became progressively less expensive as quality improved. Early sets came in a variety of cabinet styles, and all of the sensitive and electrical components were accessible and easy to replace. Vacuum tubes were located easily within reach, and the set could be maintained by even the least mechanically inclined among us.
These days, TV sets are larger, lighter, and (usually) less expensive than they used to be. LED screens and transistors have replaced all sorts of glass tubes, and the advent of the Smart TV means you can even talk to it. Now, dad doesn’t seem so crazy when he screams at the screen during Sunday football. And though image quality has improved, you can bet that when it fails, it’ll fail big. Fried microchips can’t be repaired by a guy with nail clippers and a wire tie, and who knows if Hulu will still be compatible with your $2500 Smart TV in 10 years.
The first mechanical time-telling devices appeared in Europe during the 1300s. Since then, clock technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. During the 19th century, clock making was truly perfected, with Germany and Switzerland leading the pack. Beautiful and ornate time-telling devices were produced in many countries for many years and were often the centerpiece of the home. A clock was designed to be maintained and to last generations. There are clocks all around the world that have been functioning for decades, even centuries, with proper maintenance of course.
These days, few manufacturers still produce mechanical clocks. Plastic gears and batteries have largely replaced pendulums and keys, and one can’t reasonably expect a clock to last a generation. True, a decent looking wall clock can be had in the neighborhood of $5 or less, but nothing made of plastic and card stock can replace the generations of excellent craftsmanship that was once (and occasionally still) used to produce the beautiful clocks of years gone by.
Ah, yes. Tools. There was once a time when a socket wrench bore the stamp, ‘Made in USA,’ and a power drill was made of steel and weighed more than a brick. That same steel, usually from Pittsburgh, PA or Dayton, OH, built the Golden Gate bridge and won a World War. Those days are mostly over now, and the average consumer tools (bearing names that were once respectable) seem to be constructed primarily of potmetal or plastic. The unfortunate fate of the steel mills will (likely) soon visit your shiny new scroll saw too.
Chances are, you’d have better luck with tools from a garage sale than a giant hardware chain. Back in high school, we made a game of breaking cheap open-ended wrenches on a bicycle axle nut, after figuring out that they couldn’t stand up to the task. The force exerted on the wrench sheared off the metal in the same spot every time, revealing the sand-like nonsense the manufacturer hilariously called, ‘forged steel.’ My experience is likely shared by many, who have been disappointed over the years by low-quality tools.
Although many once great tool manufacturers have shipped-out and sold-out, a few excellent tool makers remain. If you do a lot of fixing or building, you know who they are. But for the rest, who simply need a quality set of tools to use around the house, try the thrift store or a garage sale. There are scores of excellent used tools available for (often) much less than their newer and inferior replacements. Look for that big ‘USA’ stamp, and you won’t be disappointed.
Not everything produced today is trash. Stick around for, “5 Things They Still Make Like They Used To.”