Monday, September 27, 2010

27 September 1956 “They Don’t Make Things Like They Used To”

mybike1 The other day my old tires finally gave out. I have a vintage 1950’s ladies bike. When I purchased it at the beginning of my project I remember how excited I was. I had found it on a local craigslist ad and it had sat in someone’s basement for years. It had been the gentleman’s wife’s bike. It had the original tires on it, which of course were flat. So, I assumed I needed new one.
 mybike2(my bike was proudly made in Westfield MA)
I immediately took it to a local bike shop, which was a rather busy place, and told them I wanted white walls. They nodded, looked at me a little strangely, slipped a tag on her and set her aside. One month later, I realized it was not going to get done, so I rescued her, flat tires an all, and returned her home. Uncertain what to do next, hubby said, “Well, let’s at least pump up the tires and see if they can be repaired”. To our amazement, not only did they not need repair, they held air wonderfully! So, I felt even more authentic traveling about on my vintage tires.
About a month ago I came out to hop on the ole’ gal and saw the back tire was low. We pumped it up and heard the tell-tale whistle. My heart was broken. But, living in a new town now, we went to this local bike shop where they were much friendlier and also had more time, it being the end of summer.
I left her with him and came back in the half hour I had been told only to see my bike still tireless. “The tires today are wider than back then” he told me. “They will hit the frame”. I was sad, for sure, as he was even able to find white wall tires. But after some calling, he found a pair of thinner white walls. They were more expensive and more than I was willing to pay. But, my good friend, who was with me, chimed in and said, “I will buy them for you for your birthday”.
Now, normally I would not accept such a gift, but this friend bikes with me all the time and would hate to lose my company and she and my other biking friend, who we were to meet later that day, decided to split the cost. So, I gave in, happily.
Now, when I went to pick up the bike the other day, I jokingly said to the gentleman, “Will these last 60 years like the old tires”. To which he laughed. “No, maybe three to four years if you keep them dry. They don’t make things like they used to”.
That last statement really hit me. It is true, they don’t. But why don’t they, I wondered?
So, why did my 1950’s tires last longer? From what limited information I can find, it seems they may have simply been more rubber. Today tires are made of three components a  bead to hold the tire onto the rim and layers of fabric then rubber over that making the tread. I assume this is sold as a ‘superior’ way of making tires, quicker, more efficient etc. But, I have a strong feeling it is cheaper and therefore they wear out faster as opposed to the higher rubber quantity of older tires.
This, to the modern person, means very little. We are always sold on ‘newer, quicker, better’. We are so far removed from, “It is built to last” that the very concept might even be laughable to some. “Why would I want that in a few years? It will be out of date or style”.
Look at our cell phones or any of our expensive and often used technology. We never think, “Hmmm, this will be the computer I have forever, my grandchildren will use it”. Because it isn’t really practical considering the level at which the technology advances. But, with clothes, bikes, appliances, furniture?
Do we need sleek fast cutting edge clothes and furniture? Shouldn’t we want and expect our things to last and have a good quality. And, if things were built with a  style that could be appreicated, instead of a bunch of things thrown together in bright packaging and sold cheaply, we might actually consider wanting those ‘old things’ around more.
russelwright1 Recently I heard that Oneida was reissuing the famous sets of Russel Wright designed pottery called “American Modern”. This was such a popular thing in its time, it was the highest selling pottery around and most likely someone had at least a pitcher, some plates or cups. russelwright2
Now, with the resurgance of mid-century design and people clammoring after 1950’s era items, the original pieces can often sell rather high. Yet, if one takes the time to look and carefully collect up a set, a piece here and there, spending more on the original may be wiser than this re-issue. But, first, let’s learn about Russell Wright:
Wright is best known for his colorful American Modern dinnerware, the most widely sold American ceramic dinnerware in history, manufactured between 1939 and 1959 by Steubenville Pottery in Steubenville, Ohio. He also designed top selling wooden furniture, spun aluminum dining accessories and textiles. His simple, practical style was influential in persuading ordinary Americans to embrace Modernism in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
guide to easier living Wright and his wife wrote this very famous book. It helped to change the way the new nuclear family lived, ate, really thought about their living space. I do have it in the corner store HERE, but it is rather expensive.
This made me realize another difference between 1950’s and present day. In the 1950’s, though many new and varied items were coming out and being marketed like never before, Americans still wanted to know:
  1. It was built to last
  2. fit into their budget
  3. made in the USA
What Wright was doing was bringing a well designed item that was relevant to the quickly evolving time in which he lived and having it well made as well as accessible to most people. This does not mean it was one dollar a plate at Wal-Mart, but it did mean one could collect up a set over time. Mother could receive that gravy boat at Christmas. There was more a sense of one waiting and hoping and then getting the desired object. Today there is so much instant gratification, we have lost those elements that make owning something more fun or worthwhile. We live like spoiled rich children, yet we have no money or savings and are in debt.
S0, back to Oneida re-introducing the American Modern dishes collection. The glaring difference which I noticed was that it is not made in Ohio any longer (Steubenville Pottery went out of business in 1959 and was bought by Canonsburg pottery which went out of business in 1975) When it was created in the 1950’s it was made affordable for all (not what we would consider cheap today but more affordable than fine china) and it also was produced within the united states, including the clay being created here as well. Now, the Oneida version allows one to pop over to Bed Bath and Beyond, or what have you, and buy up the entire collection in one fell swoop. Ta-dah! Instant esthetics. There is one very interesting point, however, this china is made IN CHINA! So a product known for its very American ideal designed by an American Designer and produced in America is now mass produced in China.
I found a few sites that did a sort of quality test and their biggest concern was that it could be differentiated from the ‘real thing’ so as not to hurt the market for the actual vintage dishes. What is amazing to me is that if one likes mid-century design, and apparently subscribes to that esthetic, wouldn’t all that made it what it was be important too? That means the very American craftmanship of it. Yet, today, we simply take old molds or make new ones to copy it and off it goes to be mass produced cheaply in China so we can instantly fill our over-glutted cupboards with more things.
I think what is frustrating to me is, why couldn’t an American pottery concern be contracted to make the things. They would cost a little more, but so what? Instead of buying the entire set in one day, you would have to acquire it over time. But, again, that would be part of the joy of owning it. Isn’t there something lost when we just simply get something quick and cheap?
I have really been thinking about this a lot lately. How so much of the production and selling of basic goods or artistic elements in our homes are simply owned and sold by the big box stores. Where there was once individuals and couples, like the Wrights and the Eames’ who were American Designers, living a very American experience and then taking that artistacally and translating it into dinnerware, furniture, lifestyles one could respond to, today we either just cheaply reproduce this or simply let board meetings of marketing groups decide what it is we will like based on how cheaply and quickly they can get it into our hands. The very design esthetic of living, therefore, also seems to be owned by the corporation.
Now, I know many of you dislike when my blog gets ‘poliltical’ but sometimes it cannot be helped. And I wonder if we simply assign the term ‘political’ to things when we don’t want to face them. Many of us like, admire, ascribe to or strive towards a mid-century lifestyle. Rather it is the clothing, the design, the very nature of people in that time, we seem to feel something is missing. And I think that main element missing from today that was prevalent at the time was genuineness or pure experience. Today so many seem almost props on a stage, as if there is nothing behind it. People’s motives and the over all general aspect of modern life, at least to me, has an almost disingenuous or false quality to it. And I think the reason for that is we are not engaged in our lives in the way we once were. We have no say in the production, design, and overall affect of our own country because we have let so much of it be dictated to and presented to us by a few people in charge. Our own towns and local areas are not colored by the people in them, but by the vague and generalized feeling of TV shows, internet and what is in the Large Corporate stores that you can see and go to in ANY town. We have, in many ways, lost some of our humanity.
I know, this sounds like a wide leap of reasoning from a bike tire to here, but it seems to follow a path. I am not really sure what can be done about it. I know we say shop local, and that does help, but our options for that is limited. We need, somehow, to both by old and reuse the good ole’ stuff, but also to really start thinking about how to build up our economy with more small local production. I wish I could start a pottery concern, now, and we could have local designers and people who are experiencing our way of life interpret that into products made and distributed within our own borders. As it is now, every year we lose less and less of our production, we receive more and more money from outside our borders to continue this lifestyle of self hurting.
How can we try and fix our towns, cities, states and therefore our country? Is it fixable? Does it matter? Maybe I am just the one idiot feeling this and I should somehow figure out how to get back to that ‘old me’ and just take the red pill and quietly resume my place among the consumers. I honestly don’t know. I hope this post does not seem to political nor too dark, but I do feel increasingly this disconnect from the modern world that has me worried. I don’t think it is just because I am trying to live in another time, but because of it I see all the flaws in my own real time. Flaws that I want to fix because I honestly believe it would make for a better world.
It seems to me even things that once didn’t seem connected are now really connected to the way we do live now. Even children or how teens behave today, or the current state of our welfare state and on and on. All of this seems to somehow be connected to the very core that a vast majority of us live so disconnected from reality (yes this being said by a woman pretending to live in the 1950’s) that we cannot see all these problems are interconnected. It is as if we have no hope or control over our own country. From what we are meant to like or be concerned about, to what we wear, eat, live in or how we spend seems to be coming from some outside source that subtly makes those choices for us.
I almost did not post this because I don’t want to seem preachy or off-my-rocker. It is just that for myself, the person that used to be happily plugged into the modern world, a great consummer, my very esthetics and ideals, my language and expectations from somthing as simple as entertainment to even what I expected from other people has vastly changed once I saw what it COULD be or HAD been once. Some may say, “You are looking with Rose colored glasses” but rose colored glasses do not deal with facts. It IS a fact that the dishes I was speaking of WERE designed and manufactured in THIS country and now are not. It is a fact that Teens once dressed what we would now consider (more conservatively) and treated one another differently but there WERE less teen pregnancy (4% in the 50’s to 40% today). It is a FACT that there was LESS TV only available during certain hours and people got more things done in one day than now.  It is a FACT that the the GDP grew in spite of the fact that real estate was valued more realistically toward the average incomes. It was more realistic to live on one income for a couple, yet credit cards and easy high interest loans and debit cards were not there. It is a fact that the way one felt about buying on credit was not looked on the same way as it is today. College was considered important for some but not needed for ALL no matter financial circumstances. There was not as much Concern of Waste and Garbage BUT there were not even  half of the ‘throw away’ things we have today. These are facts that are there for any one to find and read.
So, Things aren’t made the way they are used to does not have to be a ‘fact of life’ but could be a ‘message to us to wake up’. We shouldn’t just accept cheaper things shoddily made outside our country. No one is holding a gun to our head forcing us to spend and spend. If we slow down and see what it is we are doing with our lives and look to our community, then maybe we can get to that point when a few people can think about taking those first tentative steps toward small scale local production, if they feel their friend, neighbors, and community will want to purchase that product, even if it IS cheaper at Wal-Mart.
I hope this post makes sense and believe you me, I have seriously contemplated trying, in some manner, to simply let myself slip slowly back into the old me. Because, it was easier to be that person, to not think as much and just spend and not care about tomorrow. Yet, today, even with the sometimes feeling of hopelessness, I feel the most genuine and alive than I have ever felt. Making my own, caring for what is considered the ‘little things’ or the ‘silly things’ does make ME happier at least.
So, what do any of you think? Am I right? And is there a way to get back to having more general control over our towns/country? Those of you who live outside the USA, how much do you feel our USA ‘culture’ affects where you live, i.e. McDonalds, American TV/Movies/music, American products?
I just want to add that I don't want to be to 'on my soapbox' because I honestly feel as if we can successfully work within the system that we now have and yet begin to just think differently. Maybe we replace a thing here or there that is made in the USA or local. And maybe we, if we are so inclined or have friends who are so inclined, to think about actual production in this country. Maybe we could open a dialog about starting a collective for something like pottery or making fabric or such things locally. Even simply researching your own part of the country and see what used to be manufactured there that is no longer there. I am still very hopeful and I think we CAN make a difference and move forward with more say in our lives, towns, country, don't you?
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