Every time I every time I walk into an older house, there are two rooms I am most interested in checking out: the bathroom and the kitchen. In many houses, these are the two rooms that are most likely to have built-ins, tile, laminate and other fun period fixtures and fittings. I love to run my hands over the tile bathroom countertops all the while oooing and ahhhing over the amazing colors and details. Does the bathroom have one of those rotating concealed toothbrush holders? What about a lovely comfort station by the toilet? Do the sink and the toilet still match? And what about the bathtub?
While I absolutely love to check out vintage bathrooms, I think my favorite is still the kitchen. I love a kitchen from any era, but for sure a mid-century kitchen is my favorite. There is such an important history behind what is found in mid-century kitchens. As many of you know, the mid-century kitchen was one of the ways women were enticed to leave the jobs they held during World War II and return to domestic life.
During World War II, the federal government worked hard to recruit housewives into the labor force. With advertisements that stated directives like, “Longing won’t bring him back sooner … GET A WAR JOB!” the federal government hoped to tap into the large number of middle-class housewives who had never worked outside the home. However, when the war ended it proved a little more difficult to convince some of these “Rosie the Riveters” to go back to being housewives.
Thus, the post-World War II home became a major site for rethinking the institution of the family. In particular, the kitchen was transformed from a back room into something of a command center for the house. Desks were added, kitchens were larger, floor plans were more open, and a plethora of new appliances came on the market. There were innovations in washers and dryers, dishwashers, small appliances, and even the kitchen cabinets themselves.
Not only were there massive marketing campaigns to extol the virtues of these amazing new appliances and the role of the housewife, but also many of the most popular TV shows of this era – such as “Father Knows Best,” “I Love Lucy,” “Leave It to Beaver” – centered on the home, the mother, and the kitchen.
For me, it is because of this fascinating history that I have become so enamored with the mid-century kitchen. In our house, we have for the most part either retained or purchased mid-century appliances. Our cooktop was made by Thermador and dates to the 1960s. We purchased a 1950s Thermador wall oven in Los Angeles and found an early 1950s General Electric refrigerator with lazy Susan shelves. We have a rare Swanson wall toaster that tilts out for use. And the house also came with a NuTone Food Center for which we have slowly been accumulating attachments from eBay, estate sales, and other such places. Our crown jewel is the 1960 PartioCart we purchased from our neighbor, Steve Evans, a few years ago.
Purchasing, owning, and maintaining vintage appliances can be simultaneously rewarding and frustrating. But the biggest concern I have is one of safety. So, I had a conversation with Dave Campbell of Campbell Appliances a couple of days ago regarding vintage appliances and what he would recommend to our readers. At our house, we rely on Dave to keep all of our vintage appliances in working order. He is great! I’ve pretty much cut and pasted the interview below. Dave knows his stuff folks! There is a wealth of information in here! And post your questions at the end of the article. I will see if we can get Dave to answer them for us!
When someone is thinking about buying a vintage appliance, what are some of the telltale signs that it might not be safe or would require a lot of work to make it safe?
Many items have the ability to be rewired and modern parts used to make burners work and refrigerators cool. However, with that being said, there is also the other side of the coin when sometimes things are just not repairable or parts have to be made to retrofit something.
How could one best do an initial evaluation of a vintage appliance, a first look before they call you?
A sure sign of an item’s condition is where it came from. Many items from back East will have rust and corrosion issues. Those from out West often have problems with rotted rubber, plastic, dirt and wiring. Always look for signs of rodents; they wreak havoc on even the nicest of units.
Also be very aware of the lack of care when an item is shipped. More than once, I have seen a gorgeous appliance in a picture destroyed beyond repair by a careless packer or shipper. [I can attest to this!] Once metal is stretched there is no returning it to its shape. Once glass is shattered, it will be difficult to find an exact duplicate of what was broken. If you are buying online, ask for lots of pictures and ask many questions before purchasing.
Is it a good idea to purchase backup parts for vintage appliances?
Items, especially switches, burners, controls, clocks, timers, etc. can be stored for years and still work, if not subject to climate issues, fire, dirt or water. If you really are going to keep it for life, I would be on the look out for similar replacement parts that wear out. Some that are particularly important to find back ups for are:
Glass: It is very hard to duplicate a glass shelf or oven door glass
Wood Parts: Of all wood parts, handles are the absolute hardest part to find or duplicate even by the best professional
I would add that we have back up burners for our 1960s Thermador cooktop and are now looking for back up heating elements for our vintage wall oven. These take almost no storage space. But be sure to get them checked out by a professional before you install them!
You have found some parts for our appliances. Where are your favorite places to look?
The Internet is a marvel for this, there are many groups, discussion sites, and blogs easily found. EBay also has some potential. Always check with sellers who stock new parts and see if they “know someone” who might have some old stock. This vintage appliance chase is not for the light hearted or broke. It takes time and money.
What are some of the challenges that go with owning vintage appliances?
One of the biggest challenges is finding people who know how to work on them. The years go by and more of the older generation that appreciated them and were familiar with them have come and gone. If you watch shows that do restorations, most of the crew will be an older generation doing the work and a younger generation learning.
A second issue would be finding the parts to keep a piece as original as possible. I have spent hours online looking for two burners for a vintage 1946 Tappan 40-inch electric range. When I did locate them, they were almost $200.00 per burner. That said, keep an eye out for someone closing out their father’s shop. They may have no clue how precious and valuable their inventory is.
What about the benefits?
You have a rare item that is becoming harder and harder to find. The older appliances are far more reliable than today’s 16 month-and-its-broke-already new units. The older units were designed to last and last, if you took care of them. In addition, these old pieces start conversations and bring up old stories and memories. Many times I have heard the stories – “My mother had one just like this” or “I remember grandpa having one, too” – you just can’t beat a hand me down for sentimental value.
Amen! I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the same types of stories when friends visit our house for the first time and see all of our vintage appliances. Thank you Dave for all of your advice! If you would like to contact Dave, his information is below.
Dave Campbell, Campbell Appliance
Email Address: CampbellsAppliance@Outlook.com
A FINAL NOTE: We did not receive any bucks from Dave for doing this story. We just think he is a swell guy, who has always done excellent work for us!