Talk about growing old gracefully: Sue Hughes’ 1930 refrigerator still keeps her ice frozen and her cold cuts cold. When we recently asked readers to tell us about old appliances that still get the job done, we received almost 400 love stories like Hughes’. We heard, for example, about Frank Wunderlich and his 1950 freezer (“The people who made this product really knew what they were doing”), Regina Doering and her 1955 hand mixer (“It has never failed me”), and Brent Ferrici and his pink 1958 wall oven (“The best I’ve ever used, however hideous it may be”). Why do people who could afford a new device keep the old? Some readers gave a sentimental reason, but most were practical, like Florence Pick, owner of a 1960 dishwasher. “It works,” she told us. “Why do I need a new one?”
What lives longest?
The oldest oldie was a stove, but many other major appliances have stood the test of time, as have some minor ones, including a can opener from 1963. Various Sears Kenmore devices were long-lived, and we heard about plenty of Frigidaire and GE ranges, Whirlpool dryers, KitchenAid mixers and dishwashers, Maytag washers, and Oster blenders. When we asked Oster spokesman Mike Fretwell for the secret of blender longevity, he said: “More than anything, it owes to the simplicity of the construction. There aren’t many places where it can fail.” Some of the brands we heard about no longer exist. The Chambers Fireless Gas Range brand died years ago but is scheduled to be reintroduced this year. Other brands morphed as companies devoured competitors. Readers tend to keep appliances going by using them regularly and making repairs on the rare occasions when they’re needed. At some point, of course, most appliances will give up the ghost. If repairs to an old appliance cost more than half the price of a new one, replacement makes sense. Although many readers noted that “they don’t build them like they used to,” there’s something to be said for newer appliances. Replacing a 20-year-old refrigerator with a new, energy-efficient one, for example, could save as much as $100 per year. Perhaps it says something about expectations that some readers nominated products made in the 1990s. But we heard from many people whose standards were far stricter. We feature 14 of them, and their ancient appliances, on the following pages.
Circa 1926 Stewart stove and 1930 Westinghouse refrigerator. Marshall Goodwin and Sue Hughes, landlord and graphic artist, Pittsburgh. A house built in 1893, a tight budget, and an artist’s sensibility had Hughes hunting for old-fashioned appliances 25 years ago. She found the gas stove in an antiques shop and the fridge through an ad. “They’re charming, and my electric bill is as cheap as anybody’s,” she says. The oven turns out holiday pies; the fridge’s freezer holds ice. Hughes has never repaired what she calls her “pieces of art.”
When the Bedayns were dating, years ago, they visited his mother, and Janice noticed her red range. “I thought, ‘This is the man for me,’ ” she told us with a laugh. “The stove’s color is magnificent.” She caters school fundraisers and each Christmas bakes 800 to 1,200 cookies for friends; her husband bakes bread. Over the years, they’ve given their stove a tune-up and replaced one small piece. Ogden describes her ancient toaster, a wedding gift to her parents, as a workhorse that looks good to boot. “It makes better toast than any of the modern things,” she says, adding that she threw out a newer model. She uses this one to toast homemade bread. “This toaster had to be made superbly,” she says. “It hasn’t been repaired. If all appliances lasted 75 years, manufacturers wouldn’t have any business.” When she was house-hunting eight years ago, Waters spotted this stove and ended up buying the Colonial house where it lived. “I love this stove,” she says. “It has character, and it’s quirky.” It has three burners and an oven just big enough to fit a turkey. Waters cleans the oven once a year and hasn’t made any repairs. Her son has urged her to buy a state-of-the-art range. That won’t happen, she says.
As a child, Ciechacki enjoyed her mom’s lemon meringue pies. Beating by hand was work, her dad thought, so they bought the mixer, which she now uses to whip up egg whites for her pies. “It’s a sentimental use,” she says, attributing the mixer’s long life, with no repairs, to its heavy metal and great motor. “Plastic can’t take as much as metal, and people once took pride in how they made a product.” The dryer was a gift from my dad to mom when she found out she was pregnant with me,” Tumlin says. After her mother died, 15 years ago, Tumlin donated the dryer to the school where she teaches. Although there’s occasional talk about a new dryer, this one keeps going. She thinks it has lasted because it’s well made and has been properly maintained, with a new belt every few years. “The downside,” Tumlin points out, “is that when other teachers hear the dryer story, everybody knows my age.”
1939 Westinghouse waffle iron
No fancy buttons here: The waffles’ aroma tells Nelson Sprague when they’re done. For Barbara Sprague, the scent brings back fond memories because her parents received the waffle iron as a wedding gift. “My parents were products of the Depression and took care of things,” she says. “They became well-to-do, but they didn’t have to have the latest thing if something worked.” The cord has been replaced, and waffles and memories keep coming. Fastidious about cleaning, Poret prefers this gray steel canister vacuum, which belonged to her mother-in-law, to the newer plastic behemoths. The hose and the handle are original. As for upkeep, Poret has had the brushes cleaned for $5. “When my husband and I were dating,” she says, “I had a ’68 Bug, and we joked if we ever divorced, he’d get the Bug, I’d get the vacuum.” Makely bought this sewing machine to make clothes, uses it now to hem her granddaughter’s jeans, and has never put a penny into it. Years ago, her 10-year-old son wanted a fringed vest like one he’d seen on TV. She sewed all night and surprised him with a new vest in the morning. Her son refused to take it off for days. “I would never trade in this machine,” Makely says. Priddy bought this washer soon after she got married. It has withstood six moves and the countless baskets of laundry that come with two daughters. They’re grown up now, but the laundry pile remains–two Newfoundland dogs, known for slobbering, keep the washer busy. “We’ve had it repaired off and on,” Priddy says. “The repairmen say: ‘Hang onto it. They don’t build them like this anymore. When we had our first boy, we bought the blender thinking we’d make baby food,” Frank Schmidt says. “But it was easier to buy the bottle stuff.” The Schmidts keep the blender on a counter, where it purees soups and mixes batter. “No need to replace it,” he says. “It does what we want it to do.” He credits the metal base and good craftsmanship for its years of service.
This built-in microwave was a wedding present that intrigued visitors in the early days. “People would come over and want a demonstration,” Pisciotta says. “We’d put cheese on a cracker and watch the cheese melt. Amazing.” He figures the microwave is still working, without repairs, because it’s simple, with one timer and no power settings. “Someone gave us a new microwave a couple years ago,” he says. “It’s in a box in the basement.” Pick has no luck with refrigerators; she has owned three so far. But her dishwasher has worked, without fail, for nearly five decades. “Mine’s old faithful,” she says. “My daughter’s on her third one.” Pick thinks her dishwasher endures because she rinses very dirty dishes before loading them. (With newer models, that’s not necessary.) It has had no repairs, just a face-lift: It used to be turquoise and was painted beige. The Lakes depend on their TV set for a look at history in the making. (In 1980, it brought them the Mount St. Helens eruption.) It replaced a black-and-white set and has had one minor repair. Janet Lake says the set has lasted because it’s well made and has never been on a moving van. The tank atop the TV houses another long-term inhabitant, an 11-year-old goldfish.