Old tools aren’t necessarily outdated


While I was finishing my coffee this morning I heard a story on NPR by one half of the Radiolab duo about how no tool invented by mankind has ever gone out of use or production.  It was pretty interesting, and it got me looking around the dining room where I was sitting to see if we had any tools we use that people might be surprised are still in use or production.  Stove blacking?  The hand-cranked phonograph?  Matt’s flint and steel kit?  The hot water bottle?  We’ve already made mention of our scythe, so I decided to focus on one of the more photogenic and less common of the various items that fit the bill.

Shown above is one of our broadcast seeders.  We got this one for $5.00 at a swap meet.  It’s an antique Sears & Roebuck model made of metal, wood, and canvas.  We used it last year to spread lime on the vegetable garden.  We have another, an Agri-Fab®, that’s almost entirely plastic and made in China.  I’m not sure why we thought we needed two, but maybe one day we’ll be glad we bought that second one.  The fabric-bag type we have is the precursor to the little green plastic box with a crank that they sell in the lawn seed aisle of the hardware store for spreading lawn seed and feed in small areas.  I’ve never used one of those, but ours both are adjustable to feed all sorts of different sizes of seed, fertilizer, and amendments.  In the spring I plan on using the one above to overseed our patchy and pathetic lawn with white clover.  A very similar model is still made by Earthway.

As was mentioned in the NPR piece, there are many reasons that tools like these never stop being manufactured, but one is that the world’s level of technology is not homogenous.  There are people in isolated or extremely poor areas who still use Paleolithic-style tools because that’s all they have available and they can be made by hand.  There are people (scads of them in India, for instance) who are just breaking into agriculture on a scale larger than the average kitchen garden, and who can only afford the simpler, cheaper, easier to repair tools such as my seeder or good old wheel hoes.  There are also people like the Amish, who choose to refrain from the fancier pieces of imported plastic and most things powered by engines, and require people- and horse-powered implements and tools as well as repair supplies for them.  Somewhere in the middle you’ll find me and Matt.

Older tools appeal to us for several reasons:

  1. Nostalgia.  They’re just cool.  We enjoy keeping them in use, since they were intended to be used and not to be nailed to the wall of a kitschy country cafe.
  2. They’re cheap.  They look dirty and broken to the modern consumer even when in perfect repair, and few people know how to use them, so they’re generally priced quite low.
  3. They’re great for small jobs. I’ve got plenty of time (which is what most of these tools run on, instead of batteries or gasoline) and there’s nothing short of excavating the septic tank that we could possibly need to do on our piddling 1/3 acre lot that we can’t accomplish with a hand tool.
  4. They’re generally people-powered.  We live just far enough out of the city that if there’s a breath of wind or an inch of snow there’s also a very good chance our power will go out, so it’s good to have non-electric back-up tools like Matt’s brace and bit or our stove-top oven.

— Amanda


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