A yen for the old-fangled
Most people like their appliances to be state-of-the-art. Not so those on the
prowl for vintage pieces built before the dawn of planned obsolescence.
By Shelly Phillips
FOR THE INQUIRER
Martha Wright's house fills with the fragrant aroma of Martha's Dream Bars, a
gooey, chocolate-chip-laden confection prepared with a Sunbeam Mixmaster that
works as well now as it did in 1956, when it was new.
She rested the steaming pan atop her 1956 Hotpoint electric range, the centerpiece
of a kitchen that looks as if it came straight out of June Cleaver's neighborhood,
with its yellow walls, gray Formica counters, colored Pyrex mixing bowls, and
Bakelite food timers.
The original owners of her Cherry Hill home saw this "California
contemporary" on the May 1956 cover of Better Homes and Gardens magazine and
sent away for the $6.50 plans. Wright bought the house in 1984 and began
renovating the kitchen 11 years later. At first, it was going to be contemporary,
but one day she went to a yard sale, and there saw the Hotpoint range.
"It was just glowing in the corner, singing to me," said Wright, who
bought it for $50, and immediately decided to make a complete 1956 kitchen.
"The house was built in 1956, the range was built in 1956, and I was built in
1956.. . . I thought it was meant to be," said Wright, a marketing executive
who in her spare time bakes her treats for Three Beans Coffee Co. in Haddonfield.
Wright has plenty of company in her passion for vintage appliances. Thousands of
people are discovering the joys of owning a stove, fan, refrigerator or washing
machine that wasn't built with planned obsolescence in mind - an appliance with
weight and heft, sturdiness and solidity.
And so they search for the perfect 1938 yellow Magic Chef range, the rebuilt Art
Deco stove clock, the missing instructions for their Detroit Jewel 1907 range, or
the talented appliance restorer who can make their cherished find whole again.
Among the tools at their disposal is the Web site
com, which generates 100,000 to 150,000 hits per week. On the Web, and with his
newsletter, Jack Santoro runs what he calls the world's biggest clearinghouse for
information, parts and service on all vintage American appliances.
Santoro, 51, is a former rock and blues musician who spent 20 years performing
with Eric Clapton, the Who, Steppenwolf and Rick Springfield. But he tired of
touring, and in the early '70s was left with trucks and an entire road crew, which
soon became a Hollywood moving business. In 1975, an actress asked him to move an
old nonworking stove she'd bought in Arizona. Santoro liked to tinker, and fixed
the stove. Soon came another stove repair job, then another, then another.
A year later, he was in the stove-restoration business in Ventura. The stoves came
in, and Santoro and his crew completely dismantled them, restored the parts, and
rebuilt the stoves. That ended in 1994, when a 1,000-pound stove slid off a truck
and hit Santoro in the chest.
So he shifted incoming work to his students and subcontractors, and put out a
series of six how-to manuals. Then he began the Old Appliance Club, which brought
together about 5,000 people interested in vintage American appliances, from the
late '30s to the mid-'50s.
Santoro gets great satisfaction from keeping appliances out of landfills,
assisting individuals in their desperate search for long-lost parts, and providing
- sometimes quite literally - warmth in the kitchen.
"I think people get attached to these things because they're used to having
that tie from when they were small, and they like it," he said. "There's
just a feeling - it's almost like a pair of arms that hugs you - you just know
In the Philadelphia area, hundreds of devotees spend time using ever-faithful
vintage appliances or searching for one that's a step closer to their idea of
Francine Jay, a Collingswood clothing designer and antique-store owner, uses a
60-year-old Maytag to wash her fabrics. "Old appliances never die. They work.
The new stuff breaks, you know?"
Douglas FitzSimons, a Kimberton lawyer, has a 1949 Chambers Model C gas range.
"I feel like I've really dressed up our home by adding this 350-pound
behemoth," he said. FitzSimons also uses a Toastmaster chrome toaster from
the 1930s, and a green table radio from the 1950s. Now he's looking for a roomy,
50-ish refrigerator, preferably gas-powered.
Al Schaefer, who commutes from his Oreland home to New York, where he is vice
president of human resources at Bergdorf Goodman, has several vintage-appliance
collections. What's dearest to his heart, however, is a completely restored 1955
GE portable window fan that first cooled his mother while she was pregnant with
him, then cooled his rowhouse nursery, and then in 1956 began cooling the hall in
their new suburban home. As a toddler, he thought the fan protected him from
crickets and other scary suburban nighttime noises. "I thought it was on
guard," he said. "Any monsters that came up the stairs at night would
have to get past that fan."
The cost of acquiring vintage appliances ranges from nothing, for those picked up
at curbside, to yard sale finds for $25 or $50, to thousands of dollars for items
meticulously restored. Clifford Boram of Monticello, Ind., who organized the
Antique Stove Association in 1984, told of a professional antiques appraiser from
Oregon who researched the value of a 1926 gas range with a wood-burning side.
Estimates from various stove experts ranged from $300 to $5,000.
Therefore, Boram offers this solution to the ill-defined question of a particular
item's worth: The seller writes his minimum price on a piece of paper; the buyer
writes his maximum price on another piece of paper. Exchange papers, and take the
average price. Usually, Boram says, both parties are satisfied.
In the early 1800s, most people cooked on open fireplace hearths, but by 1830
enough people were using stoves to fuel the development of Albany and Troy, N.Y.,
as prominent stove manufacturing centers. These early stoves were fueled by wood
and, later, coal. Gas stoves, first made about 1867, had become fairly common by
the 1920s. In stove parlance, the antique era ended about 1930, when gas ranges
stopped looking like contraptions and started looking like appliances.
Early refrigerators had their own problems. Frigidaire's first refrigerators, in
1919, had wood-paneled cabinets with porcelain steel liner panels and eelgrass
insulation that absorbed moisture, making the cabinet walls damp and smelly. But
by the mid-'20s, corkboard insulation solved the odor problem, and refrigerators
In 1935, "miracle kitchens" ushered in the era of labor-saving
appliances, with a Chambers gas range so well-insulated that cooks could bake a
turkey on one side while churning ice cream in a deep pot well on the other.
Designs went from fulsome Art Deco to jet-liner sleek, and by the '50s, massive
Hotpoint electric ranges and capacious GE refrigerators ushered in the country's
era of sumptuous bounty, both in the kitchen and throughout the land.
Kitchen appliances have always followed new technology - with stoves, for example,
going from cast iron to sheet metal to glass tops. But just now, on the cusp of a
new century, many people want to be surrounded by peaceful possessions upon
entering the unknown.
"They just feel more comfortable with quilts and old appliances and wood
furniture," said Bruce Hannah, professor of design at Pratt Institute in
Brooklyn. "Somehow they do touch this nerve in us that makes us feel at home
with them, that new products just don't do - they just don't make us feel
Old appliances have an endearing quality of solidity, said Hannah, who is also
designer-in-residence at Cooper-Hewitt in New York, the national design museum of
the Smithsonian Institution: "The heft of it - it appears to have value just
in its weight, quite literally, although it probably doesn't toast any
While most old-appliance aficionados try to re-create an ideal time or experience
in their homes, Martha Wright is doubling her pleasure.
Wright, for 11 years vice president of marketing for the Franklin Mint, has just
begun a job as senior vice president for marketing at Zindart Ltd., a China-based
manufacturer of die-cast replica cars. For six months she will commute to San
Francisco, coming home every other weekend to cocoon in one of her two vintage
In addition to her Cherry Hill home, she is building a replica of an old barn in
Avalon, which will include a 1935 kitchen. So far, she has found a Chambers range
for $150 in Haddonfield, and had it renovated in Troy, N.Y., for $500. For another
$500, the range repairman found and renovated a double-door GE monitor-top white
enamel refrigerator with oak trim and handles like an old-fashioned ice box.
Wright went on a frenzied search for just the right high-back, wall-hung,
cast-iron-clad porcelain sink. She trash-picked, went to yard sales, scavenged. At
one point, she had seven sinks in her backyard. All have since been given to
friends. She literally drove one sink to Alabama, and another to Alaska. For her,
this is all part of creating a warm, nurturing environment.
"I'm not a Luddite," Wright said, "but I just get pleasure from
handling and using my belongings. I don't collect for the sake of collecting. I
interact with my things and enjoy them every day."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For a free guide on establishing reasonable value on vintage appliances,
send a self-addressed stamped envelope to The Old Appliance Club, Box
65, Ventura, California 93002. Club dues are $25 per year, and members
receive the fascinating vintage appliance quarterly magazine,
The Old Road Home, plus free consultation on parts,
service, information and appliances.
Old Appliance Club founder Jack Santoro also publishes a series of six
renovation manuals, available for $14.95 ($16.03 California residents). Free
information on those, back issues of TORH, cookbooks, etc., are fully
described by writing to the same address.
You can now use your credit card to join the The Old Appliance Club and
order all HOW TO books, including Ed Semmelroth's Wood Stove
Restoration Phamplet, on line now at www.antiquestoves.com