To prep my face I used a soap manufactured in Turkey by a company that has been obstinately making its product from the same main ingredient for a half-century. Most modern foam-from-a-can shaving creams are made of triethanolamine, lanolin, saponified vegetable oil and polyoxyethylene sorbitan monostearate, a synthetic wax. My cylinder of hard shaving soap is rendered from mutton fat.
Eight of the nine clocks in my house were manufactured before 1920 and must be wound by hand. The oldest was made in Connecticut in 1859, when James Buchanan was president, and it is far more competent at its job than he was at his: It still keeps time to a minute a month. Another clock, from the early 1900s, advertises on its dial a company that produces the “Worlds Best Ham’s and Bacon.” I bought it because I fell in love with the apostrophic illiteracy. The clock run’s splendidly.
Unlike 95% of all American adults, I drive a stick-shift car. Among the many virtues of these fun but cumbrous vehicles is that they’re seldom stolen, because 17-year-old thieves have no idea what to do with that stupid second brake pedal.
In my dining room is an old wind-up, turn-of-the-century Victrola “talking machine” from the early 1900s. It is an enormous oaken edifice, overlarge and overengineered to accomplish its only task, playing a 78 rpm record, which it does with all the fidelity of a philanderer. You do manage to hear most of the words and music through the crackles and crepitations of aged shellac (this is earlier than vinyl). There is no dial to modulate the volume; to do that, you have to fling open, or crack open, or firmly shut a pair of wooden doors that muffle or unmuffle the unvarying 90-decibel sound of the brass, ear trumpet-type speaker behind them. The Victrola is entirely mechanical, primitively so, but will be delivering annoying music to me in my bunker long after the nuclear holocaust that has wiped out all electric grids on Earth.
I’m not a Luddite, or an apocalyptic alarmist. I write on a computer. I use an iPhone. Alexa is my roommate. I listen to relatively modern music on relatively modern machines. I’ve even begun to understand how to employ those postage-stamp squiggle squares to download a restaurant menu onto my phone and upload my order. I know what “download” and “upload” mean, and mostly use them correctly. Like all loyal Americans, I am so hegemonized by GPS that I retain no ability to get from Place A to Place B on my own. (Humans no longer see our world from high above, as we did in olden times, via maps. Rats in mazes is what we have become — and, willingly, I am one.)
Mostly, I like modernity and its ingenious conveniences. But I have also surrounded myself with ancient, obsolete technologies, and I only recently came to understand why. It’s a dispiriting reason, actually.
Many years ago I set up a stunt for a story in The Washington Post Magazine. I persuaded the renowned violinist Joshua Bell to busk, incognito, outside a D.C. Metro station at rush hour. For three-quarters of an hour he played Bach, Massenet and Schubert on his priceless Stradivarius, with a violin case open beseechingly at his feet. Most people hurried by, barely listening, as though the fiddler in the subway was a nuisance to be avoided. Only one person recognized him. He made all of $32, some of it in dimes and quarters. I wrote the story as a lamentation for our hectic, overscheduled lives. How many other things of beauty are we heedlessly hurrying past?
My emails detonated. They came from thousands of people, many of whom — roughly one in 10 — claimed that they were weeping as they wrote. I didn’t know what to make of that, at first; after all, I hadn’t misted up when reporting it or writing it.
What eventually became clear is that whatever their age or background or politics or social standing, whatever their musical sophistication, these people had something in common: a sense that we are defiling our culture — that technology has beguiled us but also benumbed us to elegance and beauty — and that, combined with overwork, we have become utilitarians at the expense of our souls. Or something like that.
In fact, gifts of jewelry to loved ones are losing pace to gifts of soundcore bluetooth speakers, mini-drones with stable connectivity, wireless charging pads, spiffy cordless epilators. We live our lives in a headlong rush of plastic buying plastic.
This appears to be a new variation on an old phenomenon. A poem by W. H. Davies, a Welsh hobo from the early 20th century, begins:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
I am staring at this poem now. I included these lines in my article about Joshua Bell, and many of the weepers cited it in their emails.
Slow down, Davies was urging us. Don’t just look hungrily forward — look hungrily all around, and hungrily backward, too. Take a moment. Think.
The coffee table in my living room is from 1925 or thereabouts. It is handcrafted from ancient pine, thick slats cobbled together with nails. The wood oozes its age. The luster is magnificent. Stenciled on the front of it in black paint is “Sanitary Do’Nut Machine, Seattle Washington.” It has a “lot #” stenciled on one side.
My coffee table was evidently the packing crate in which an industrial machine was shipped to ma and pa stores around the country that sold hot, ready-made donuts, products that are today mostly the province of chains like Dunkin’ and Krispy Kreme. That donut machine manufacturer — the Oscar Lucks Co. of Seattle, Wash. — still exists, though the web tells me it has diversified through partnership with at least one other company, a company called DecoPac; according to its ads, this modest conglomerate offers a “one-stop shop for all your cake decorating needs.” Today, products like these are shipped with reinforced cardboard, bubble cushioning and Styrofoam peanuts — which, in combination, work just fine. No need for wood, which is fiscally unjustifiable.
Yes, my Victrola claws savagely at the eardrums, but the 78s it plays — I buy them, when I can — tell stories that are mostly unavailable elsewhere, oftentimes for good reason. Have you ever heard Stephen Foster’s mournful ballad “Massa’s in De Cold, Cold Ground”? Its central thesis, sung with condescendingly poor grammar, is that the simpleton slaves in the antebellum South loved their kindly masters. It is ironically instructive in ways no modern treatise on racism can be — a song by a white man, sung by a white person to reassure an audience of white people that they are not complicit in evil.
I also have “Mr. Wilson, Won’t You Say a Word for Ireland?” sung around 1919 in an unconvincing brogue by a vaudevillian named Irving Kaufman. It is frozen in time — written at a certain moment, for that certain moment, and is otherwise almost indecipherable. At the time, the sitting president was arranging a trip to Paris to help carve up the postwar world and negotiate what the victorious countries hoped would be a lasting peace. For the sake of Irish American lads who’d fought bravely in the Great War, Kaufman plaintively implored Wilson to 1) show some political gumption and 2) make the case to the world for Irish independence. (Beholden to his British allies, Wilson didn’t, and didn’t).
The only electric clock I own — that ninth one in my home — was made around 1932, a novelty item created in support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first candidacy for president. It is built from cheap bronze, featuring FDR standing (many campaign items posed him upright, an understandable imprecision to combat a whispered calumny that he lacked the vigor needed for leadership.). The bronze Roosevelt is resolutely manning the tiller of a ship over the slogan “F.D.R. The Man of the Hour.”
I grew up in a house that worshiped Roosevelt — a portrait of him was the only artwork on the walls. But that is not the main reason I bought this clock. It has early electric-clock technology, with early eccentricities. For example, once you plug it in, to get it started you have to crank it like an old Stutz Bearcat. If you accidentally crank it counterclockwise, the clock runs backward. The manufacturer no doubt saw this as a flaw to be fixed in later models, and not as a delightful feature to be cherished, as you and I, in our joyful iconoclasm, absolutely know that it is.
There is an old story out there, almost certainly apocryphal. Supposedly, in the 1960s, American engineers at NASA — famous for their precision designs of spacecraft — decided to taunt Swiss engineers, famous for their precision designs of mechanical watches. It was to be a battle of technologies, old versus new, elegant versus functional. The Americans are said to have sent the Swiss several gold strips that were so narrow in width that it would take 10,000 of them, aligned side by side, width to width, to be an inch long. The Swiss, it is said, returned the strips with holes drilled in them. This probably never happened, but the conversation it prompts is still instructive.
Finding and buying and fixing Old Things That Do Things often involves accommodations with oneself — a trade of practicality for charm. These old things can be corny and imperfect. But they can deliver something of value that, depending on your viewpoint, transcends.
For her birthday, I recently resolved to give my girlfriend a watch. Rachel is difficult to buy jewelry for; she doesn’t like the pampering and ostentation it implies.
Modern watches are miracles of technology; almost all of them rely on the same timekeeping device, a quartz movement mass manufactured in India or China or Switzerland, and priced at next to nothing. You are likely to find a nearly identical movement in a stainless steel $20 watch as you will in a gold $1,000 watch. The design can’t really be improved upon. These watches are astoundingly accurate. Many automatically reset their times daily to that of Global Coordinated Universal Time, including adjustments for leap seconds.
Some of these modern watches are solar powered. Some adjust dates by the number of days in the month, automatically, and factor in leap years. Most of these watches are plastic and do not rely on moving parts. You can fling them against the wall and no damage will be done.
You cannot do that with the watch I gave Rachel. It would shatter. Gears would sproing across the room. The watch was manufactured in Switzerland in 1917 or so, and merely tells the time. It is unhandsome, made of pot metal. The strap is old canvas, a little stained. The dial is displayed behind a sturdy metal cage, the bars partially blocking your view of the face. To tell time, you have to peer around them, like the original pillars in old baseball stadiums, ones that required cut-rate “partially obstructed“ seats.
The cage was necessary because these watches were manufactured for sale to the military in America and other countries, to be distributed to soldiers, specifically soldiers fighting the Germans and Ottomans in the Great War. During combat, with sudden incoming shelling, in trenches, the young men had to dive for cover, and sometimes their watch crystals shattered, and the watch was crushed beneath it. Was there a way to fix this?
The Swiss, officially neutral as always but possibly not without preference, obliged. Rachel wears this watch indomitably, navigating around the dial-pillars with joy.
That’s where I am going here. There is dignity in age, and also something less tangible, an emotion that technology can’t adequately provide. Ask Anatoly and Nina.
Gene Weingarten is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. He is the former syndicated humor columnist for The Washington Post.