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BY DON FLUCKINGER • Out on my noontime walk last week, my coworker and walking partner Scot asked about my shoes. He’s a little older than me, but he was wondering what they were and where I’d gotten them. They were vintage Florsheim gunboats, recently acquired on eBay.
|That episode, combined with the fact that the organizer of my upcoming 25th high school reunion asked me to set up a Facebook page for the 81 alums in our class, got me to thinking: I’m getting old.|
“Can’t buy shoes like these anymore,” I said, showing him the underside. “Look at all those nails in the heel! You could spend more than a grand on shoes today and get something less well made.”
Which was mostly true. You could spend a grand and get lesser shoes. You also could get bespoke, handmade shoes that would make my gunboats seem like water-damaged Nikes on clearance.
That episode, combined with the fact that the organizer of my upcoming 25th high school reunion asked me to set up a Facebook page for the 81 alums in our class, got me to thinking: I’m getting old. I’m pining for the past just like my dad might.
Or am I? Looking around, I see lots of things whose manufacture has been outsourced to offshore factories pumping out flimsy replicas of formerly fine products. And I realized, it’s one of the reasons I collect fountain pens. To wit:
Shoes. When Florsheims were in their heyday, I was riding a banana-seat bike up and down my street and not particularly inclined to dress up. What I’m getting now in vintage shoes was the middlebrow “normal” of that era, nothing particularly special. Today’s shoes cost as much or more, and their glued-together, rubber construction lets go within a couple years. Even welted shoes that can be resoled are half the shoes these vintage gunboats are.
Clothes in general. Don’t get me started on this, but I’ll just hold up the example of fully canvased suits versus today’s fused (glued together, essentially) imports that, on the higher end, are basically marketing scams in comparison.
Flashlights. Sure, D-cell Maglites weren’t as portable as today’s LED throwaways from the Home Depot or worse yet, the dollar store, but unless (like me) you invest in something like an LED Lenser T-series or its competition, it’s not going to last long and it won’t shine particularly bright when you need it.
Audio gear. The ascent of digital music and a flood of down-market imports has ruined music playback. For the best bang for your stereo buck, getting higher-end 1980s-vintage amps and speakers off of Craigslist — usually being sold by someone who has just upgraded to a home theater system boasting half the sound quality at several times the price — feels like stealing.
Which brings me to fountain pens. Oh, and mechanical wristwatches and pocket watches, most of which also were built to be carried for a lifetime when properly maintained and don’t poison the landfill with mercury-laden batteries.
Modern fountain pens are the exception. They’re mostly well-made of good parts, and will last decades if kept dry and clean between uses and reasonable care is taken to not, say, drop them or let them rattle around one’s briefcase unprotected.
But even comparing a Parker “51” to many of today’s fountain pens brings into stark relief the differences between vintage and modern. While the FTC put the kibosh on lifetime warranties for fountain pens in 1946, most “51s” can be brought back to life today, with a little TLC, and will serve the lifetime of multiple writers.
What the deal with that? It seems not that I’m getting older, but perhaps a tad wiser in my middle age. And you who use vintage pens, too, get this. Even Richard — who isn’t a Wearever apologist like me — points out that 1940s Wearever Pacemakers and their gold nibs are a pretty good deal today, kinda like my middlebrow Florsheim gunboats.
No doubt, you could buy junk back then too. Most Wearevers were, indeed, junk. Ingersoll cornered the dollar watch and dollar pen market, pumping out pens that were c-grade in comparison with its Parker and Sheaffer contemporaries but far better than today’s bottom-feeder factories (see box below). But Darwin helps us sort things out: The bad ones are mostly gone to the landfill except the pieces bearing cartoon characters from the era, but people who buy them aren’t looking for quality timepieces or fine writing instruments; they’re paying the big bucks for other reasons.
1927 Ingersoll $1.00 pen vs. Modern $10.00 pen
Okay, so the modern pen looks better, at least today. But the soft plastic snap-type inner cap will wear out and the pen won’t stay capped. (The Ingersoll has a threaded cap.) The metal trim next to the nib will corrode. (The Ingersoll doesn’t have any metal where it shouldn’t be.) The steel nib will lose its plating. (The Ingersoll has a 14K gold nib.) The black paint will chip off the overweight brass body. (The Ingersoll is made of Bakelite, no paint anywhere.) With nothing more than a sac replacement, the Ingersoll is still in perfect working order 84 years after it was made. Think this modern cheapo will last 84 weeks? Ingersoll, the maker of the Mickey Mouse watch and Mickey Mouse pen, at least made a pretty good attempt at giving the customer his money’s worth.
So there you have it. I’ve decided, even though it’s been 25 years since I left high school — and I cannot deny that Father Time’s chasing after me with his gnarled walking stick — I’m not getting curmudgeonly just yet.
It’s more like I’m sick of getting rooked for cheap junk. Acquiring quality vintage stuff is how I push back against that, not because I wish for a return to some imagined “good old days.” Heck, I wasn’t around when a lot of this good stuff was new. But I still can appreciate its craftsmanship in this era when junky stuff is the “new normal,” where good old brand names (such as Florsheim) are sold and resold to companies that trade on their vintage reputation and bring to market something almost — but not quite — entirely unlike the original.
Further Reading: Time to Rewind: A Guide to Collecting Disneyana Ingersoll Wrist Watches 1933 - 1939, by R. H. Farber
Are you into vintage Ingersoll Disney character watches? If so, here’s your bible.
|Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.|