Listening Post: Combing the aisles

Having achieved a certain level of wear, like most men my age, I am a little less finicky about my appearance than might be optimal. I look at it as fostering consistency–plenty of life left in this face, and in these old blue jeans. But there are certain minimum standards. For example, I try to never be without a pocket comb. Not only does it help in the “frightening the children” department, it balances the wallet in my other back pocket, so long days of sitting at the computer don’t cause scoliosis or hip dysplasia.

My father carried a pocket comb before me, and the one left to me among his effects had probably been in use for 20 years. Cheap, black, and made of some 20th century petrochemical miracle product that never broke or lost a tooth. I wish I could find it now. They carry something at the local chain drug store that looks just like it, but I have snapped four of them in half in the last six months, doing nothing more strenuous that slumping in a padded chair. Yes, I know, this is a traditional cane-waver’s lament. Next I’ll be shooing the neighbor children off the lawn.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t live a different, and in some ways a poorer economy. To the point, I tried to find a better-made comb. They seem to be everywhere, packaged two to a card (which tells you something), and they all suck. The great strong, everlasting comb fails in this economy, because you never sell another one until the first has been lost, (or possibly chipped in a gas main explosion or a train wreck) and you can’t get a customer to pay a twenty-buck premium for so humble an artifact. Equally hard to find–clothes that last, stuff that can be repaired–or a repairman to fix them.

All our possessions have become temporary acquisitions, from Kindle e-books, to leased cars, to burner phones, to Ikea furniture, to pocket combs. Yet Americans, perhaps more than any other culture, identify with their stuff. We accumulate things with such enthusiasm that we have a whole mini-storage industry to accommodate the stuff that won’t fit in the house, or the garage, or the shed, or the yard. When did it stop mattering whether the stuff was any good?

What items in your life were too good to survive a throwaway society? Name one in a comment below.


18 Comments on “Listening Post: Combing the aisles”

  1. Galen Pletcher says:

    Dale, thanks as always! I still have the pencil sharpener that my grandmother gave me as her high school graduation gift in 1961. It’s a substantial piece, and a strong spring and clamp setup holds the pencil and feeds it into the mechanism while you use two hands to hold it down and turn the crank. I worry a lot that if it were to need repair, no one would know what to do. It was a great gift. Every time I use it, which is often, I think of Grandma.

    Remember when cars had generators to replenish the (6 volt) battery, not alternators? I once, in 1963, watched while a mechanic took the generator off my ’52 Chevy, took it apart, and replaced the brushes, which had become worn after 11 years. Then he put it back together, re-installed it, and off I went. Now we throw everything away when it goes bad. No one knows what’s inside an alternator anyway. I’m not sure I miss the old days all that much, but I sure miss the times when people took things–physical things–more seriously than they do now!

    Best wishes! – Galen

  2. Jim Benvenuto says:

    Original Heidelberg printing press (which you helped to move from a basement in 1989) manufactured in 1956 and still working today–appropriate technology then and now. Excellent design, fine German engineering, excellent metallurgy, built to last. Much like old BMW motorcycles.

  3. Hank says:

    We still have Maytag washing machine from 1975 (back when Maytag products were actually made in Iowa, not some Asian country). It has broken down only once in all that time – it needed a new control unit for the cycle settings. Three different repairmen told me it was hopeless; those parts are no longer available and I’d have to invest in a new machine that would live, at best, for 10 years.

    That’s where the Internet (a fairly recent new-fangled invention) came in. A brief 15-minute search turned up a company in Toronto that actually repaired these control units. So I sent the unit in for repair and within 10 days I had a repaired unit back in my hands and more, importantly, reinstalled in the washing machine. That was 3 years ago and, so far, no problems.

  4. Lucy Martin says:

    Name just one? Jeepers, so much was built to last, back in the day!

    (Among other things) I’d be willing to pay $20 for a comb that doesn’t break, ever.

  5. Larry Vanderburgh says:

    When my wife and I got married (in 1964), my parents gave us a toaster that they had used for probably 40 years. We used it for another 15 or 20 years, and then in a bow to modernity, replaced it — big mistake. We’ve never found one that worked as well or dependably.

  6. JC Patrick says:

    I think it’s fascinating that – just as we worry about environmental issues – we’re making more and more disposable items that are fodder for the landfills!

    My “goodie” is my mom’s nut grinder. Pink and white plastic – from the 1950s – with a glass bottom into which the chopped nuts fall. Tiny cracks ensure that I crank it slowly, but it still preps a mean pecan pie! Most of my kitchen equipment is vintage – glasses from the 1940s and 50s, dinnerware from the 40s – 60s. Pyrex is still oven to table – even though it’s 60 years old!

    Dale – try the Vermont Country Store. Bet they’ll have a comb that lasts.

  7. Byron Whitney says:

    In the personal grooming category I would say fingernail scissors. We made the mistake of not getting the good ones we had back into a checked bag on a return trip from Scotland. No problem at the airport in Glasgow, but in transferring flights in Philadelphia they were confiscated. Haven’t been able to find any good ones since.

  8. Judy Gibson says:

    Another neat column, Dale. Several years ago in answer to my earnest newsletter plea, Robin Duncan donated a vintage Olivetti typewriter to the UU Church in Canton. We needed a real typewriter to create borrower’s and catalog cards for our growing church library. Bless Robin, the typewriter appeared. I immediately went online to search for replacement ribbons and, to my amazement, found them easily. I haven’t had to use them yet, but I’m ready! And about 600 books later, the typewriter still performs well, still makes that telltale noise that has people sticking their heads in the door, saying, “Is that a REAL typewriter I hear? What amuses and satisfies me the most is that very computer savvy kids stop by to play with that “funny machine in the library.”

  9. SAM says:

    I knew I couldn’t be alone on this! There are a lot of things that they “just don’t make like they used to,” the first ones that come to mind for me are automobiles and footwear. I learned a lot watching my father who, among other skills, was a very good mechanic and I miss the days when cars were mechanical beings…not getting me down the road at the whim of an electronic brain. Don’t get me wrong, the bells & whistles that come with this are cool, but if something goes wrong with the circuitry then I’m left standing in front of the vehicle, hood open and cursing. In the old days I could get back on the road with a quick “MacGyver” fix often involving my three favorite tools…a swiss army knife, a roll of duct tape, and a can of WD-40!
    As for footwear, I really miss the shoe repair shops and the boots & shoes that they were able to put new life into. I didn’t mind paying a bit more for a pair of shoes or boots that I knew I’d have for years because I could get them resoled and repaired as needed, the extra dollars spent almost felt like an investment.

    And Dale…I think there are a few of my dad’s old pocket combs around the house if you’re interested. :-)

  10. Nancy Currier says:

    I admit I do love my Kindle and instant access to books in the middle of a sleepless night, but my house is filled with “Things that still work” trophies…some from my parents, some from my grandparents and great-grandparents. A GE percolator coffee maker, a chrome Waring blender with 2 speeds, a Sears refrigerator that my parents bought for the house when I was in high school (for perspective I have a granddaughter in kindergarten now), a hand crank meat grinder, a hand crank coffee grinder, and a rotary phone with separate ear piece. We use them all everyday. My husband has a ’63 VW Beetle that starts in the frigid temps when none of our cars that were built in this century will. My husband and I are just becoming 2 antiques among many others. We still work pretty well, too.

  11. Ellen Rocco says:

    I still have an old rotary phone which I use whenever the power goes off (pretty regularly out here in the country)–unlike cordless digital phones, it requires no electricity. I have banged this phone around for decades and whenever I plug it in during a power outage, voila! There’s that dial tone.

  12. Robin McClellan says:

    One of the things I inherited from my Dad was his 1955 Ford 865 tractor that he bought brand new when I was a year old. I take good care of it and it starts, runs, mows, digs, blows snow, grades roads, lifts logs onto the truck and I don’t know what I’d do without it. Best of all, I remember him using it on the farm and teaching me to drive it. Thanks, Dad. Wish you could see it now!

  13. Andrew Thurman says:

    I forget that my pickup is old…a 89 Ford Ranger… I wouldn’t give it up. We have 3 different wing up clocks around the hoysedating anywhere between 30 to 75 years old. The final thing that we use is a old military foot locker made in 1946 by Skyway Luggage. We have had that for over 25 years. It ls still OD green. I almost forgot: my 1970’s circa Lava lamp is still used quite a bit. There is nothing quite like a purple lava lamp.

  14. WoodCook says:

    I am so “with” the folks who mentioned the nail clippers and the shoe repair — I took my shoes with me to Albany for a conference and had them worked on there recently, and new clippers are made of terrible metal, un-filed, that leaves nails snaggly and a mess. I have some wonderful old wooden chairs I love, but what I wish I had is my mom’s Oster blender that was probably a wedding present in the early 60’s…but, since she’s still using it I will defer my greedy guts. I have a nice hand-cranked one since I’m off-grid, but this puppy ain’t hanging in there for 50+ years, I’m pretty certain!

  15. Anne Burnham says:

    I found a place called Resole America: I send my Birks off to them every 2-3 years. Expensive, but cheaper than new shoes.

  16. Nancy S says:

    35 year old leather LLBean slippers that have been worn nearly every day. Many family attempts to replace them, but there’s a sense of smugness with their wear!

  17. Joseph S says:

    @ Andrew T: be careful with your Skyway luggage, I bought a suitcase from a second-hand store in great condition for only a $1 because the staff didn’t know how to open the sliding clasps (so classy!), but, unfortunately, neither did the TSA agents who broke it a few years later :(
    Also, 20 years ago I worked in the cafeteria at a youth camp. The oven-stoves were already 60 year-old, cast iron, gas monstrosities aquired from U.S. Navy surplus pre-WWII. They worked great, with the exception of one safety deficit: no pilot lights- requiring us teenagers to reach into the ovens (head and shoulders) to light the burners before every meal! I heard the camp lost its rustic charm when that dining hall was torn down and replaced with a cheap, new (soulless) building. I’m told I’m too young too be cynical about “progress”, but anyone can recognize the difference between “newer” and “better”.

  18. Ellen Pardoe says:

    Dale (Hi to all)
    My dad, who died last year at 94, had a marvelous metal comb that bent to his butt shape but never broke. He had it for over 40 years and now sits proudly in my bathroom cup. I cannot use it in my hair but i cannot throw it out! He found his (after years of whining about the plastic ones) at a shop that supplied horse currying items. It was a mane comb. Try it…. you to may hold onto one for years!
    Love Ellen

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