I’ve been studying US patents for kitchenware trying to grasp why some items have survived unchanged since their inception and other items fall away. Which gives me a great excuse to BUY more things, breaking my personal rule about having duplicate items which perform the same function. Leading me straight to the decision of ‘which one do I KEEP?’ Most of my friends fall into two categories, they either want the oldest and coolest item or they want the one which functions and easiest to clean. At times I have been both people, these days I am trying VERY hard to find the middle ground.

While I was trying to Konmari all the crap in my kitchen I start noticing patterns, leading me to reverse my plan and actually seek to add more things to create a clearer picture. My core concept is that every designed and manufactured item, has several benchmarks: the Antecedent, which is the version that looks like the thing we use today but not quite, then there is the Archetype of the thing which ‘looks and functions’ just like the one we enjoy now, then there is the Apex where the industrialized material matches up perfectly with the design development (wait a minute I will explain) and then the Derivative (I tried to find an A word for this) which is the thing we enjoy now which is kinda LIKE the previous things but not quite.

The two on the far left are circa 1900, the far right is brand new.

The Tin opener on the far left with the wooden handle (the 1909 Slipper) was a typical design of the era the Antecedent if you will. But it was the next iteration of a full metal tin opener with the corkscrew (also from 1908) where we reached the Archetype, the perfect utilitarian design, it opens everything that had to be opened for a very long time. This early stainless steel was a heavy gauge TOOL steel, which wasn’t cheap to make or buy, and probably cost you an hour’s wage; so you took care of your can opener and in turn you could expect it to last decades if you didn’t lose it. Post WWII manufacturing of stainless steel became cheaper and lighter, so the Apex of tin opener evolution was the lighter, cheaper 15 cent version which stuck with us unchanged for another 5 decades.

As manufacturing costs started to creep up, moving production off shore and using lighter and cheaper stainless steel for consumer products was a way to keep the retail price for these items in the five and dime store range. Thus we have the Derivative versions of the original item, a tin opener which on the face looks identical to the 100 year old design, but is half the weight using materials which allow it to perform the function but cut it’s life expenctancy dramatically. These new items will bend and rust away a lot quicker than it’s well cared for predecessors. Now an argument could be made that, “do we NEED tin openers which last centuries?” How much would be we pay for that quality? and who buys the stabby kind anyway? Someone must cause the one on the right hand side cost me under $2 from Amazon.

Far left is pre 1900, far right is new.

A similar evolution can be seen with the Potato Ricer, the Dough Blender, the Pizza cutter or with anything else you can think of even dishes and food. Once the design of the item has been perfected, there is a constant reformulation of construction materials to keep cutting the manufacturing costs and keep the quality level within shouting distance of the original item.

Far left is a wallpaper trimmer

This perspective answers the questions people ask repeatedly, “how did we get to a disposable society?” and “why don’t things last like they used to.” When presented with the option of spending an hour’s wages on a tin opener, too many of us choose the least expensive option; which is a fair decision when you are stretching your pennies. And we also don’t SEE a tin opener as a long term investment, it is a tool to solve a problem and when we need one, we can find them at any store. (well not the stabby kind anyway) We have gotten used to most things BEING inexpensive and we resent it when we have to buy the more expensive version because that’s all that’s available.

Far left is 100 years old tinware, far right is new

Buying new items for the long term is a hard argument to make in an era when cost of living is outpacing our income and saving a dollar or two on individual purchases of relatively insignificant items can quickly add up and impact purchases of food or medicines. But it IS something to consider when MAKING a purchase, any purchase. Is this an item where I want durability or is this something I will use once in a blue moon? granted a $2 stabby tin opener, used very rarely will last forever taking up space in a bottom drawer. But how much for something I will use everyday? if one can’t afford the quality item currently being made, perhaps seeking out a previous iteration of the item is a compromise to get durability for low expense?