Once upon a time people had to be prepared to fix almost anything that broke down. This was especially true to those on the frontier because there were few local servicemen. Even in the more populated areas, it was expected that you would have to fix most of your possessions when they broke. This was largely because of economic factors and because of the simplicity of construction of common items.
Of course some skills were so difficult and rare that most communities attracted a black smith, a wheel right, and others with specialized skills. Some rural communities thrived while others declined because of the skills or lack of skills of the local artisans, but the bulk of repairs were done by the owners themselves. Fathers became known as Dad the fix-it man because little children believed that Dad could fix anything.
As equipment and possessions became more complicated, more specialists were required. Appliance repairmen had to be called when the washing machine broke down. Almost anyone could fix a wagon or repair a harness, but those temperamental horseless carriages often required an auto mechanic to keep them running.
My father was part of the last generation of fathers who could repair almost anything. He kept a barrel of scrap metal and a pile of scrap lumber from which he often fabricated simple replacement parts.
When I became a husband and father in the mid ’60’s, I used the skills my father had taught me to fix toys, appliances, furniture and the family car, but as the ’70’s came upon us, the fix-it fathers found it more and more difficult to make repairs. Many new items were spot welded or glued together rather than being assembled with nuts and bolts. The newer appliances and machines were built to more complicated plans. Rather than repairing items, more and more society has found itself replacing things.
I was reminded of this the other day when a fan stopped working. My brother and I used that fan to cool our room in the ’50’s. When my mother died, we found the fan in her house and added it to our pile of treasures. Over the past twenty years, that fan found occasional use, but this summer, my wife started using it to ventilate our greenhouse. The two speed switch malfunctioned so that it only ran at one speed. Then the switch failed entirely so the fan would not run at all.
I purchased a new switch and set about repairing the fan. Because the fan had been built in the early ’50’s I had no problem disassembling it. All fasteners were nuts and bolts or screws. The switch was replaced and the fan reassembled in jig time. We had a fan again.
As I disassembled the fan, I noticed four extra screws on the plastic case of the fan, and the plastic, though unbroken, was slightly deformed. Once the fan was disassembled, I discovered a plate of thin metal inside the case. Obviously the case of the fan had been broken once upon a time. One of us had probably dropped it and then taken it to Dad to fix.
The plate and screws had held the edges of the crack together. Very obviously, Dad had used acetone to dissolve the plastic and make it to flow, sealing the crack. My father’s skill showed in that the repaired crack was not noticeable until I looked closely.
Could you have fixed the cracked case of a modern fan? Perhaps if you could at least take it apart, or if you had a solvent that would soften the modern plastic used. The cellulose acetate plastics of the ’40’s and 50’s were soluble in acetone. Many modern plastics are not.
While the men got all the good press about fixing things, the women could also do their part. Often, broken toys got fixed before my father got home from work because Mom fixed them.
My father was drafted near the end of 1943. He went through basic training in Illinois and then was shipped to Texas for advanced training. In the spring of 1944, he was given permission to live off base. My mother packed her one year old son into a used car that my father had been maintaining. Keep in mind that cars built in the ’30’s needed frequent maintenance. As she drove south from Chicago, my father got some leave and hitch hiked north. They met in Oklahoma so my father could drive us the rest of the way to his base. In the course of things, my father inspected the car. He found it well maintained and in good condition considering the 1000 mile trip except that there was a hair pin where a cotter pin should be.
“Hey, Babe, how did a hair pin get under the car?”
My mother calmly answered, “I put it there. The car needed fixing on the trip, and I had no cotter pin. I didn’t have one, so I pulled a pin out of my hair and used it to fix the car.”
(note: During WWII, women wore “bobbie pins” in their hair to keep stray locks under control. Though the bobbie pin is a lighter construction that a cotter pin, they are both about the same size and shape.)
It is sad that we no longer are able to fix our own broken possessions. In part, that is the result of the way things are made these days. I certainly hope us old timers and the generations who follow us have not lost the desire to make repairs. I would hope we at least look the broken item over. Some things still can be fixed with a screw driver and plyers, but you have to try.