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As a historian, I am always wary of the trope that things were somehow “better” in the ill-defined “good old days.” This is commonly referred to as the “golden days fallacy” or the “rosy retrospective.” In either case, the idea is that people will tend to remember the past with irrational degrees of fondness, and ultimately romanticize it as some sort of better time, often where people were more moral, worked harder, were more honest and made better goods. This is closely related to “survivorship bias,” which presumes surviving artifacts from a different time lasted to the present due to their superiority over newer goods.
Reality is usually quite a bit harsher. The good old days rarely were, and surviving material goods tend either to be exemplary examples of their type (expensive, high-end goods have a better chance of surviving) or survive simply through chance or through mass production. There are other reasons vintage tools and equipment survive, such as being overbuilt due to manufacturing methods of the era or simply underuse.
Either way, while it is pleasant to think of some distant better time and place, and imagine how much better our lives could be “only if things were like they were back then,” it is more likely that you are living a better, healthier, safer, and more advanced life than you would have in whichever good old days you favor. Now don’t get me wrong, I like to engage in that sort of wishful thinking as well, and sometimes, well, things were made better way back when, and I’ve compiled a list of a few, and why I think they are better than their modern counterparts.
Now before I get started, it is important to remember that as technology and manufacturing evolves, so do a lot of other things. Products may have also been built primarily for industrial use instead of casual home use, or may have been over-engineered, or overbuilt because it was easier than creating finer tolerances, or to allow operation under harsh conditions. Anyway, here are my choices for products that really were better in whatever good old days you might prefer…
This one is demonstrably true, your grandparent’s Pyrex probably was better than the stuff you get at a big box retailer, and the reason is due to chemistry and business decisions.
Proper Pyrex is made of borosilicate glass, which uses boron and silica as primary ingredients. This creates a glass that is amazingly resistant to thermal shock, which is the sudden and irregular expansion of the glass during rapid temperature changes. Naturally, thermal shock tends to lead to shattered glass and is something you want to avoid in cookware.
Now it is true that normal glass can be carefully tempered to withstand more thermal shock than usual, but it will never rise to the quality of borosilicate glass. Which brings us to Pyrex.
Borosilicate cookware has been around for about a century and has been trusted by generations of rural Americans who want safe, light and even cooking ovenware. Unfortunately, in the name of the almighty dollar, Corning licensed the Pyrex brand to a company called World Kitchens, who promptly started making Pyrex branded cookware out of inferior tempered soda-lime glass.
Again, in most case,s you’ll be fine cooking with modern tempered soda-lime glass. But for me, I don’t want to waste my time playing “is this the day I get a freak exploding pan in my kitchen?” If I want to see glass shatter all over the place, I’ll go throw rocks at bottles in my backyard or something.
So back to Pyrex. What is the clever homesteader or cook to do? Well, you can always buy pre-1998 Pyrex. There is a ton of it out there, and often can be had cheap, or you can buy modern borosilicate Pyrex dishes made in France. But how do you tell what kind of glass you are getting?
Look at the trademark. Borosilicate Pyrex will be marked PYREX, while the modern junk is marked all lower case “pyrex.” The all caps version holds true for older and vintage cookware too. All caps good, lower case explode. Personally, I haunt thrift shops and antique stores when I want good Pyrex. It saves me a few bucks along the way as well.
I want to qualify this a bit. There are TONS of high-quality knives on the market today at almost any price point you might want. Modern steel and manufacturing methods have put better blades in the hands of consumers than ever existed at any point in history. Even legendary hand forged steel from centuries ago is inferior to some of the material being made today, which is readily available to almost any consumer, as opposed to being rare and expensive.
Which brings us back to why you might have had a better blade “back in the day.” The issue revolves around stainless steel and how common it is in knives today. Serious chefs, hunters, and outdoorsmen know that a high carbon steel blade tends to offer superior performance to stainless steel. It holds an edge better, is easier to sharpen, and usually more flexible.
Stainless steel knives are common, affordable and often found in many entry to mid-level blades. While stainless steel knives have been commercially available for about a century, they started out as a premium product. Meanwhile, high carbon steel blades, unencumbered by patents continued to be churned out.
And this is where I make an argument for better things back then. Pick up a $20 knife today. Odds are it is some flavor of stainless steel, but that same knife in 1940, would cost about $1.11, and almost assuredly would have been made of high carbon steel. All other things surrounding design being equal, I’ll bet that $1.10 knife will hold a better edge, and be tougher than the $20 knife today.
This is a case where things were “better” decades ago simply due to economies of scale, preferred product design, and market demands. That said, I’ll take a high carbon fixed blade hunting knife from 1940 before I’ll take most modern stainless blades of the same basic function today. Better still, I’ll take a modern high carbon hunting knife over a relic from 1940. But let’s face it, that 1940 blade is probably wicked cool isn’t it?
This is a tough one. And while you are prowling secondhand stores and junk shops looking around for old knives and Pyrex, you probably are also looking for tools. As with anything designed to be used, and used hard, we will mostly see the high-end stuff survive, and the lower end stuff will be long gone. Does that mean grandpa’s wrenches were better? Maybe…
Or maybe not. It depends on what quality he bought in the first place, and how he used them. But as more and more tools are being made overseas to increasingly cheaper price points, we have to wonder where the “good enough” line is drawn for these products. Certainly cheap, almost disposable tools were made in the US throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but with the rise of offshoring, even the not so cheap tools seem to sometimes be a bit too poorly made.
Is it reasonable to think that a hand tool today is worse than a comparable one of fifty years ago? Let’s just say I’d prefer grandpa’s mid-grade tools over today’s imported mid grade tools. The same goes for power tools. I’ve seen power drills and grinders from decades ago hold up for insanely long periods of time. They were made with stout metal bodies, and had tough, durable and rebuildable motors. Today, it’s often cheaper to make a power tool that will run for a certain expected lifespan, and then just scrap it, rather than rebuild it. And that’s really a shame because that old fashioned power tool craftsmanship just doesn’t seem to exist today.
What To Shop For
Honestly, I could go on and on and on here, but at some point, a line needs to be drawn. I’m not going to list every sort of tool, knife, dish, etc… of a better quality of the past that exists today. It would be exhaustive and highly subjective, and I’m already dancing pretty close to that subjective line.
When you prowl around the secondhand stores and find the castoffs of yesterday, ask yourself a few things before buying.
- Can I get a comparable quality item today?
- Was this a high-grade item in its time, or am I looking at cheaper stuff that survived through chance?
- Are there better or safer alternatives available today?
- Will this item hold up to the use I intend for it?
There are a lot of other arguments that could be made about things that were better at some point in the past, but at some point, you have to draw a line. In some cases, products are less efficient today but are safer to use or more environmentally friendly. Sometimes the tradeoff for cleaner air, rivers, and forests is a less efficient paint or a paper wrapper instead of styrofoam packing.
In other cases, consumer tastes lead to gradual changes in familiar products that might not be as we once remembered them. In other cases, rose-colored glasses make things from our formative years more appealing due to associating them with good times. At some point too, a person becomes more resistant to change and prefers to maintain a certain level of familiarity with goods and culture, rather than continually changing with the times.
When outfitting your homestead with vintage and antique tools, be highly selective in your choices. You might find incredible bargains buying industrial grade items that are obsolete, or from industries no longer common in your area, or were just retained through the years. Where I live, it is often possible to find high-end antique machinist tools at estate sales due to the number of machine shops in the area. If I travel to logging country, I have bought high-grade antique axes cheaper than a new one.
Keep your eyes open for what you want, and what you need. If you are careful with your selection, and put aside biases and opinions about what may or may not have been better in a given era, you will find yourself equipped with some great stuff and often at a great value.
Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.