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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 www.antiquestoves.com

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 you're home."

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 perfection.

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 flourished.

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 cozy."

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 better."

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 kitchens.

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 .


1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
 

 

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