They don't make 'em like they used to.
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Fed up with modern home appliances, a devoted community of antique appliance enthusiasts have given up on today's ovens, mixers, and toasters in favor of restored appliances from yesteryear.
Their reasons are as varied as the products they buy. Some people only want small appliances that were made in the U.S., and can't find new ones that meet that requirement. Others feel like yesterday's products were better made than what's on store shelves today. And plenty of folks appreciate classic designs, from art deco to mid-century modern.
Plus, unlike today's appliances, older ones can be repaired. "Appliances built prior to 1960 were designed to be serviced and maintained," says John Jowers. He runs AntiqueAppliances.com, an appliance restoration firm in Clayton, Georgia. "Parts for these appliances could be rebuilt and reused rather than a replacement part being needed."
But not all antique appliances are worth the effort, so we've collected the best of the best. After all, who knows? Maybe one of these gems is sitting in your basement waiting to be rediscovered.
From the 1920s through the 1980s, Sunbeam was the name in small appliances. Though various acquisitions and mergers eventually made it just another brand in Jarden's massive portfolio, it was proudly independent for the majority of the 20th century, hiring famed product designers to craft mixers, toasters, and can openers.
The stylish Vista line of small appliances was introduced in the 1960s. That's when canned food was king, and an electric can opener was a necessity for any modern housewife—including my grandmother, who proudly displayed a Vista can opener on her countertop for over fifty years. Hers was off-white and blue, but other colors included pink and turquoise. You can find a working model online for around $30.
Few defunct home appliance brands have a cult following that can rival Chambers. Perhaps that's because Chambers gas ranges remain unlike anything else on the market, more than half a century after the company's most iconic product was discontinued.
Most ovens stay on while they're cooking. Chambers ranges use insulation thick enough that the oven shuts off after preheating and remains warm enough to cook food—a concept Chambers called "retained heat." Add "daisy" burners and Thermowell kettles, and you've got a range unlike any other. It's no wonder that restored Chambers ranges sell for thousands of dollars.
Jowers says that it's unlikely any modern appliance will gain the following of classic models like the Chambers range. It's not because they aren't innovative—it's simply because they aren't designed to last that long.
"While we are beginning to have requests for the '60s and '70s avocado green and harvest gold appliances, the bigger issue is that you can’t rebuild or get parts for appliances made after 1960," he said. "When parts are no longer available and the part is not rebuildable, then when it fails, we have no choice but to replace the entire appliance," he said.
Before microwaves had popcorn settings, an electric corn popper was a must-have kitchen gadget. The best ones came from Dominion—a company that also manufactured Sears-brand products.
Headquartered in Minneapolis, Dominion shot to popcorn prominence in the 1920s. But it was another kitchen gadget—the microwave—that changed popcorn forever. Pillsbury microwave popcorn was available nationwide starting in 1983, and by 1987, the New York Times declared that a "popcorn war" was on.
Even then, manufacturers of electric popcorn makers predicted that consumers would revolt. Debra Kumm, then a manager of electric popcorn maker West Bend, told the Times that "Microwave popcorn is a fad," and predicted that "it will last until people read the labels and realize what chemicals microwave manufacturers put into their popcorn."
Though there is no scientific evidence that microwave popcorn is unhealthy, much of the modern-day interest in traditional corn poppers comes from individuals who are still concerned about food safety. In 2012, a Denver man was awarded $7.2 million in a lawsuit against a microwave popcorn manufacturer for "popcorn lung"—diminished lung function he claimed was the result of consuming two bags of microwave popcorn each day for ten years. Most manufacturers have now removed the chemical suspected in his lung disease—called diacetyl—from their products.
Search online and you'll find plenty of vintage toaster enthusiasts who swear modern models can't hold a candle to their antique counterparts. Back in the day, the Toastmaster was the chrome-plated king of browning bread. That's why people are willing to pay top dollar for these sleek Truman-era toasters, from companies such as Toaster Central.
The most die-hard toaster fans join the Toaster Collectors Association, which publishes a newsletter and is hosting a convention in Charleston, South Carolina, in October. If you're into coffee urns, waffle irons, or egg cookers, you'll have to join their subgroup—the Electric Breakfast Club. (No word on whether Emilio Esteves, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, and Molly Ringwald are on the roster.)
Today, the KitchenAid stand mixer is the baker's best friend. But from the 1930s through the 1950s, the Mixmaster was one of the most desirable kitchen electrics on the market. New products still bear the Mixmaster name, but you can buy a refurbished original online from The Mixer Master.
Before K-Cups and drip coffee makers, there was the percolator. It "bubbled" hot water up to the top of the pot, where it would travel down through grounds to make coffee. It was the preferred way of making coffee from the '40s through the '70s, and many have many bemoaned its demise. At one point, Maxwell House even had a famous jingle that turned the percolator into a musical instrument.
The most iconic percolator design was from Sunbeam, with a streamlined chrome design and black handle. Working examples can sell for anywhere between $50 and $100 today, depending on condition. You can get one from Toaster Central or KitchenMadeUSA.com for a fully refurbished model, or you could search a local thrift store and take your chances.
Nearly every upright vacuum on the market today can trace its lineage back to the Hoover Dial-A-Matic, which was named after the dial that lets users switch from the upright carpet brush to an extendable hose with tools. Classic models can fetch hundreds of dollars if they're in good enough condition, and collectors hang out at the Vacuumland.org forum.
Famed industrial designer Lurelle Guild drafted the Electrolux Model 30 vacuum cleaner way back in 1937. Its chrome plating and angled trim gives it the streamlined look of a Douglas DC-3 aircraft. We're especially fans of its on-board accessory storage.
If there isn't one already languishing in your garage or attic, you can get one from The Electrolux Man.
When it hit the market in 1927, the GE Monitor Top finally made refrigerators somewhat affordable. Sure, it sold for $525—the equivalent of $7,100 in today's dollars—but previous models cost twice that.
It's no surprise that the appliance equivalent of Ford's Model T became a popular collector's item. It's not just a slice of Americana, but a period-perfect piece for an antique kitchen.
According to Jowers, an old fridge can even be pretty energy efficient after a full restoration, as long as the insulation and door gasket are replaced. That's especially true for a manual defrost fridge. Even though you might have to chip away ice build up, the benefit of an older model is that the fridge just shuts off when it gets cold enough.
"They essentially are super insulated boxes. At that point, they just maintain a temperature until the thermostat tells it to cycle back on," Jowers says.
Like Chambers, O'Keefe & Merritt was once the "it" name in ovens. The ovens themselves were exceptionally well-built, which makes them great candidates for restoration.
Though Tappan bought the company in 1950, customers are still paying thousands for restored O'Keefe & Merritt ranges that were originally built when FDR was giving fireside chats.
"Appliances built prior to 1960 had style, design, flair and they were designed to be functional," Jowers says. "While vintage appliances can be expensive, the justification can also be in the fact that the appliance will never have to be replaced as all parts can be rebuilt, serviced, and maintained for the next generation."
If you like the look of these retro appliances, you can check out RetroRenovation.com for more inspiration for how to integrate them into your kitchen.
This article was originally published on May 4, 2014.
June 27, 2016
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