Monthly Archives: November 2009

Wooden Crates

Vintage wooden crate.

Golden Glow beer wood crate with craved handles.

You see vintage wooden crates everywhere at flea markets. Many vendors don’t sell them, but use them to carry their wares from the car to the booth, and back to the car. They don’t consider a crate as a nostalgic thing, imbued with some hidden beauty. It’s just a convenient way to schlep things around. From these people you can get the best deals on crates. Although, sometimes, they don’t want to give them up because they know it’s hard to find another box that sturdy.



Ballpoint Pen

Red Caran d'Ache ballpoint pen.

A Swiss-made Caran d’Ache retractable ballpoint pen. The red color indicates the red ink inside (same goes for blue and black models).

The Swiss company Caran d’Ache sells writing utensils for the price you can buy a decent car. Their pens are made out of gold, diamonds, pearls and other fine materials. I’d be too worried running around with a pen like this, or even keeping it in my drawer. Caran d’Ache also makes this straightforward but fine ballpoint pen. It is made out of steel and has a replaceable ink cartridge. I bought it on my last trip to Europe for less then fifteen Euros.


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Natural Rubber

Karl Benz riding in the first car in the world.

Karl Benz (foreground) sits proudly in his invention – the world’s first car.

Legend has it that sometime in the 16th-century a Portuguese man was charged with witchcraft after showing samples of cloth, which had been made repellent with rubber. When you think about it, rubber really is pretty magical. Rubber seems like a modern product, but indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest have been using it for as long as 3,500 years. Caoutchouc, it’s original name, was made into balls, figurines, bottles, fabric-coating and other products.

Natural rubber is made out of latex, a milky sap, which extracts from the Pará rubber tree. The tree is native only to the Amazons. There are also other trees, like the African Landolphia, that exude latex. The Pará rubber tree is, and has always been, the world’s largest supplier for natural rubber, though the Congo was a significant contributor during King Leopold’s rule.

Goodyear advertising, 1918.

100% natural rubber tires in a Goodyear advertisement, 1918.


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Basting The Bird 1937

Basting The Bird 1937 / Photo from

Have a very happy Thanksgiving with friends and family!

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I once suffered a ‘serious’ injury from a dysfunctional thumbtack. (Under pressure from my thumb, the needle lost its connection to the head and went out the other way). Since then I only use push-pins. They are easier to remove. The push-pin was invented around 1900 by Edwin Moore (1874 – 1916) in Newark, New Jersey. Moore worked at a photo lab and was missing  a simple solution to hang up film to dry.

Moore push-pins

Moore push-pins made with aluminum.



Natural Bristle Kitchen Brushes

Japanese vegetable brush.

Vegetable brush made in Japan.

There are two simple tools that I use in my kitchen almost every day. One is a brush from Mexico with very thick natural bristles. It works great to clean out a cast iron steel pan. I don’t use it for anything else. The other one is a Japanese vegetable brush. It also has natural bristles which have a great feel to them. Both brushes are made of only two materials – the bristle and a steel wire. It can hardly get any simpler than that.


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Borosilicate Glass

German borosilicate glass container. (Image found at Chriftopher Chen via Flickr)

Pyrex container made in Germany. (Image found at Chriftopher Chen via Flickr)

Humans started making glass about 5,000 years ago, which makes it one of the oldest manufactured materials in the world. However, major scientific breakthroughs in regards to glass didn’t come until the 19th century. In the 1880s, the German scientist Otto Schott (1851–1935) invented borosilicate glass, a new, much stronger variety of the material. He started selling it in 1893 under the name “Duran.” Schott still sells it under this name today. In the United States, borosilicate glass was first manufactured by Corning Glass Works in 1915, and sold under the name Pyrex.


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Aw Boon Haw

Aw Boon Haw in China, 1949

Aw Boon Haw sits for a portrait in China, 1949.

It may be called “hǔbiao wànjīnyóu” in its native tongue, but it’s just Tiger Balm to me. I’ve been using this Chinese remedy since my hippie mom rubbed it on my chest during the cold New England winters of my youth. The burn on my skin still has a calming, comforting effect.

Tiger Balm was invented by Chinese herbalist Aw Chu Kin in the 1870s, using the healing combination of mentholeucalyptusclovecassia and mint oil. Kin had two sons, Aw Boon Haw was a hell-raiser known for street fights and mad business skills while Aw Boon Par was gentle and more reserved.  Together, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par would make their father’s tincture a global phenomenon by the early 1930s.


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Vintage Telechron Bakelite clock.

Bakelite Clock by Telechron.

The production of synthetic plastics began in 1907 with the invention of Bakelite by Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863 – 1944). At the time, there was a thirst for a new material that w0uld fulfill the needs of the latest innovations – radios, electrical insulators and mounts, telephones, car parts, cameras, toasters, vacuum cleaners- any product that required a material that could resist heat, electricity, and be cheaply manufactured through mass production.

The existing “natural” plastics couldn’t do the job. Shellac (which comes from the Asian lac beetle) and Japanese Lacquer (a product of the lacquer tree) were in limited supply, and celluloid, which is made from cellulose and camphor (both found in a variety of plants), was widely available but highly flammable and therefore dangerous to manufacture and use. Natural rubber, which is made from the sap of different plants was too soft and melted when exposed to heat.

Enter, Bakelite. Created by the chemical reaction between phenol and formaldehyde, manufacturers loved it from the beginning. It was thermosetting (stayed in its form even when exposed to heat), hard, and durable. It possessed excellent electric insulation properties and could be manufactured cheaply in practically unlimited quantities.

Vintage Bakelite advertising.

Ad for Bakelite bowls.

Bakelite quickly became the emblem of modernity.

When friends asked Baekeland why he entered the field of synthetic resins, he answered “to make money”. Baekeland knew you could make money with plastic 60 years before Mr. McGuire bestowed this gem of knowledge on Benjamin in the classic scene from “The Graduate” .

The scientific magazine “The Brass World And Planters Guide” from 1911 wrote excitedly about Baekeland’s new invention, dubbing him one of the “foremost inventors of the age” and declaring that “Bakelite is an entirely new product and there are very few manufacturers who will not find some place where it can be employed to an excellent advantage.”

Colorful Bakelite silverware

Colorful Bakelite handles on silverware.

The magazine is clearly impressed with Bakelite’s science: “It is strange that two pungent and ill smelling substances should unite to form a material that is transparent and amber-like in color, and entirely devoid of odor and taste. Such is chemical reaction and while remarkable, indicates the possibilities of making substances synthetically”.

Bakelite was widely used until the early ’50s, when it quickly gave way to brightly colored, less brittle, and cheaper to produce plastics like PVC.

Today Bakelite is rarely used in consumer products. However, it is still sometimes used  in small precision-shaped components, such as molded disc brake cylinders, saucepan handles, electrical plugs, switches, and parts for electrical irons.

Bakelite billiard balls.

Bakelite billiard balls.

You can still find a lot of products made out of Bakelite in antique stores.

If you’re unsure if it’s Bakelite that you’re holding in your hand, there are several ways to find out. Bakelite has a clunky sound and a more ‘worthy’ feel to it than other plastics. Bakelite also also has a more ‘natural’ color than modern plastics.

Rub your fingers over Bakelite or poke it with a hot needle. If you detect a chemical odor akin to the smell of burned human hair (which is formaldehyde), it’s Bakelite.


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Chemex Coffeemaker

Peter Schlumbohm with Chemex coffeemakers. (Photo from LIFE Magazine, 1949)

Peter Schlumbohm with Chemex coffeemakers. (Photo from LIFE Magazine, 1949)

Spawned from the unlikely mind of an expat German scientist — the Chemex coffeemaker is a brilliant melding of design and convenience, a thermal carafe drip-system consisting of lab grade borosilicate beaker glass and a filtration system using laboratory filter paper.

Peter J. Schlumbohm, Ph.D, moved to New York City in the mid-1930s and was desperately searching for a great cup of coffee amid the city’s stale automats and late night diners.



Kerosene Lantern

Metal BriteLyt multi-fuel lamp.

BriteLyt multi-fuel lamp.

There is something beautiful about well-built camping gear – it holds up incredibly well after years of use and abuse. Take the old steel kerosene lantern for example; it is so much sturdier than today’s plastic variety, which is toy-like in comparison.

Modern camp lanterns are often made of ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), a hard plastic that exhibits strength, rigidity,  as well as temperature and chemical resistance. It’s used for everything from telephone and computer equipment housing, to childrens toys and furniture. Though chemically inert as a final product, the manufacturing process uses several highly toxic compounds.

Vintage Petromax catalog

An old catalog for Petromax lanterns.

Petromax Catalog 1934

There are, of course, dangers and disadvantages in the use of any kerosene lantern. The most obvious issue  is the serious environmental concern when burning any fossil fuel. Different fuels such as kerosene, gasolineColeman Fuelbenzeneacetonediesel, and non-fossil fuels such as biodiesel, vegetable oil or methanol, have different thicknesses and varying temperatures for vaporization (flash point). Therefore the fuels can’t be easily changed in lanterns.

However, the company BriteLyt, whose lantern is based on the Petromax design, claims to be the first offering a multi-fuel lantern that works perfectly with biodiesel, methanol, and ethanol. A lot of people experiment with different fuels and wicks these days in order to retrofit old steel lanterns to use bio-based fuels. We will keep you updated if we hear of positive developments.

Petromax catalog, 1957.

A 1957 Petromax catalog.

For these and more catalogs go to Be Back Later. You can also find a long list of pressure lamp manufacturers, origins, and brand names on the U.K. website Pressure Lamps International. Another good site with lots of information on lanterns is Terry Marsh’s website. Unfortunately, neither website has great images.

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Braun Electric Shaver

When buying electric products, a compromise is likely unavoidable. I feel this way with electronics more than with most other products. This is partly because you never really know what’s inside the shell, and often the shell doesn’t look or feel good to begin with. It usually doesn’t help that they are made out of one of my least favorite materials – plastic.

My first electric shaver was an old one my father didn’t use anymore – a Braun Micron from the ’70s. It’s made out of plastic and aluminum. In some old products, plastic has the ability to look good. Having come to a full understanding of plastic’s negative environmental impact and the widespread use of low quality plastics today, products made of this ubiquitous material are usually a visual and psychological turn-off for me.

Early Braun electric shave, 1951. (Photo by marratime @ Picasa)

Braun Standard S50 (L80), 1951. (Photo by marratime @ Picasa)

Max Braun introduced his first model of electric shavers, the S50, in 1951. He founded Braun in 1921, but true success arrived when the S50 came out. Previously, the company had thrived by manufacturing radios and record players, until the factory was destroyed during WWII. Production resumed again in 1947 after the war had ended and the factory had been rebuilt.

Braun electric shaver S50 detail. (Photo by marratime @ Picasa)

Braun S50 electric shaver, detail of razor. (Photo by marratime @ Picasa)


The company’s excellent reputation for design and quality is mainly due to Dieter Rams. He joined the company in 1956 as one of 16 designers and started overseeing product design in 1961. He kept this position for an incredible 34 years. Rams, who also began designing furniture 1957 – is still an active designer and design consultant today.

Vintage Braun S50 taken apart. (Photo by marratime @ Picasa)

The inner workings of a Braun S50. (Photo by marratime @ Picasa)

Under Rams guidance, the classic Braun shavers appeared on the market. The Sixtant was a thick and solid little piece of machinery whose operating sound would make you believe that inside, a small locomotive was powering the thing. There is an air of myth around the model, as most of them still function perfectly today. And the two parts that require repeated exchange are still widely available – the block of blades and the thin metal foil that wraps around it.

Braun Sixtant  electric shaver, 1968.

The sleek Braun Sixtant S (5330) from 1968.

Rams’s credo is “less, but better”. In an interview with Design Boom he is asked to describe his style: “In Japanese they say ‘wabi sabi’. Together these two concepts mean ‘tranquility, simplicity, balance’, but also ‘liveliness’. This is a point of reference for me… I have always been interested in mixing materials, in my earliest furniture designs. I mixed wood with plastic or aluminum”.

Braun Sixtant, 1968.

Braun Sixtant, detail.

About whether form follows function, Rams says “yes, form has to come after function, I can’t conceive of it in any other way. There are certainly psychological functions as well, it is a matter of balancing the aesthetic content with regard to use.” As other designers of influence, he names Jasper Morisson and George Nelson.

After Rams left Braun, the design of their products went downhill. Their current product line is a disaster in my mind. It probably didn’t help much in terms of design and quality when the company was swallowed by Procter and Gamble.

Unless you still have an old Braun, a wet shave seems the only solution.

Braun ladies electric shaver from 1971.

Braun cosmetic shaver for women (5650), 1971.

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Vintage Car Visor

Vintage red Fiat Dino from 1968.

Made in the shade: A 1968 Fiat Dino cruising around.

Car visors are hardly known as the most trend-setting of objects. Usually made of plastic covered with sort of synthetic fabric, their main purpose is to hold CDs. I saw this leather visor (below) at last week’s Santa Monica Flea Market. It doesn’t help much with CDs. But it sure looks stylish. I wonder what the pocket with the two slits was for? My car of choice to install this would be a Fiat Dino 1968 (shown above).

Or maybe a Bond Equipe 2 Litre GT. Bond is a U.K. car company that was founded by Lawrie Bond in 1948. The Equipe was built in cooperation with Triumph. In 1969, the Reliant Motor Ltd. took over Bond and soon after, shut down the factory and stopped using the name.

Leather car visor

What a steal! $20 for this leather car visor.

More information about both cars is available on the truly amazing Australian website Unique Cars and Auto Parts. The navigation is a bit bumpy, but I don’t know of another site that has more information on cool old American and European cars. I promise, you will spend hours on there. Completely addictive if you love vintage autos.

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