Archeologists like to sift through the trash bins of ancient buildings when excavating. It was generally the catch-all pit by the fire where all brick-a-brack was swept and gotten rid of. Amidst the garbage, other things were swept aside and lost and this is the buried treasure the archeologists seek - everyday household items that tell a story about culture. Like an old comb. Made of bronze, or mother of pearl? What were their technical capabilities? Who did they trade with? What was valuable to them? How did they spend their leisure time? The back story of such things helps us understand how much the world has changed. It also shows us that in every era, we get a new version of normal.
I have a small artefact in my own arsenal of tools, a small number three smoothing plane that is of a convenient size and weight to be useful. It is not the Stanley-Bailey standard, rather it was a six-dollar knock off that I found orphaned at a flea market. It was painted with gaudy red enamel, and was a little bit worse for wear. Once I got it home, I looked at the handle and realized that under the dust, was a sticker on the handle which showed the curious label, “Modern Tool Company”.
The Modern Tool company of Wisconsin was just another of the many small innovators that came and went with time I suppose. At a certain point this little company was churning out tabletop grinding wheels to sharpen knives, apple peelers, and other household standards like this plane. Yes it’s true. A hand plane was standard in any household. It was the kind of common tool that you would have along with a hammer and a screwdriver and a saw. You know, that good old number three hand plane so that when Dad installed windows or doors he could do a bit of trimming and fitting?
Modern is a term that usually refers to the slice of time after the first world war, which was the first wave of automation and a celebration of good steel, the triumph of mechanics... cogs, pulleys, wheels and machines. People were cooking up new labour-saving devices every single day that you can see if you Google the USA patent registry. It’s all online. They imagined one day we would all be sitting around like kings getting served by all those wonderful gizmos.
The word modern is somehow ironic, because all-iron planes replaced the old wooden planes that came before them. “Modern” really implied something like, “here to stay”. Wood wore out but these planes would be around forever, or so they imagined. They never factored in that the world itself would change so much that a hand plane would no longer be considered a household item.
I was happy to restore this old tool, because in some humble way it is beautiful, and useful. I felt kind of like I was saving Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree... the happiness of making something that was in the trash bin of life useful again. We have long since passed through the electronic age and into the digital era, where the physical presence of a tool is something we don’t think about because the tools themselves have become invisible microprocessors. I am typing on a laptop now, and have not given much thought to the inner workings that are making all this typing appear in front of me. Now we are into the age of “the cloud” where the tools we use are not even at hand, they are remote and invisible to the eye.
In contrast, old hand tools from the past are getting a second appreciation and I am glad for that. There is something beautiful about a dedicated design whereby a tool performs one function very well. Let’s just say that times have changed. If you compare this care and specificity up against the multi-function of an iPhone, it would seem that what we value has changed as well. It is all too easy to forget that there were other times and places - just ask any teenager about the age before internet and witness their blank stare. They cannot imagine it. They assume things have always been like this.
Artifacts like mine are just on the edge of useful, and on the outside fringe of popular. They are the orphans of life’s great trash can. With the advent of artificial intelligence there will be many more of them to come. I wonder if even human beings will become ironic. It is clear to me when watching anyone play on their iPhone, that the tools we thought would serve us and make us free, are firmly in control. Science fiction is coming true it seems. I even heard a discussion on the radio today about robots, wondering how we will make up the shortfall of taxes that a human being doing the same work would have paid into the system.
I just hope that however this story ends, it will be kinder to human beings than time has been to this little plane that people always assumed would be a household standard… along with the table mounted apple peeler and the hand-turned meat grinder. Let’s just say that there is usefulness that can be found and appreciated in things no matter the age.
I think I know why it was personally important for me to rescue this overlooked and unremarkable plane from ignominy. It is the instinct you acquire, as you slip into the arcane and become somewhat of an artifact yourself. The trash bin of life can contain some treasures. Just ask anyone who prowls a flea market, or even someone who is simply getting older.
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