And welcome to the “Vernacular Life Podcast”, where we talk about anything and everything that could go on in our 1906 vernacular farmhouse.
I’m Paige your host and ha-ha I think I fixed the audio situation. Now, we have it coming out of both speakers, theoretically, instead of just one. I’ve got a small black Panther sitting next to me being very sweet and very cuddly. And we have a great topic today. Obviously, we live in an old house and along with the old house, it’s no secret that I really like old things.
And one of the reasons I like old things so much is because they are just such better quality than you can get today, especially for the price. I mean, I can’t compare how amazing, and good quality, and just beautiful some of these pieces that I have, these dressers and these chairs and these tables compared to modern stuff that you get.
And so that kind of begs the question in that, why are these old things so good? Why are they 150 years old and still perfectly functional? Whereas, you buy something from Ikea today and five years later, it looks like it’s literally been dragged behind your car. So we’re going to talk about why they don’t make things like they used to.
I talked about this on Instagram quite a while ago, and I specifically talked about it in relation to planned obsolescence, which we’ll get to in a minute. But before we do that, I kind of want to talk through an overview of the history of manufacturing and kind of how making things started, and where we are today, and kind of what has happened in that process, and what has changed over the years.
And for background, as you may know, I am in fact an engineer by education before I did YouTube, and Instagram, and podcasts, and blogs. I worked as a manufacturing engineer or a production engineer for quite a while, both as an intern and as a full-time employee. So I’ve been on many different production floors, many different manufacturing floors. And the job of a manufacturing engineer is essentially to look for ways to make the production floor run smoother.
And it’s a bit of a weird job because you don’t really have any reports. You don’t have anybody who answers to you generally. You’re not really, you know, anybody’s boss, but you have to look around at the production floor and say, “Hey, we’re not doing this as well as we could, and here is how I think we could make it more efficient.”
And that was pretty much my job. I would look at a production line and I would say, “Hmm, we’re wasting a lot of time doing this particular step. So if we move this material over to this side of the line, we can save three seconds on that operation.” And saving three seconds here in two seconds there sounds really nitpicky, especially when a lot of us are used to just working by ourselves in our homes, cleaning our houses, making dinner, doing DIY projects.
You know, when it’s just you, it kind of takes as long as it takes. But that is the gift of manufacturing in that you spread out the workload and you can basically churn out more products faster. And they have a name for that actually, it’s called takt time, T-A-K-T time, and that’s just the pace or frequency that you need to produce an item every 20 seconds, 30 seconds in order to keep up with the demand that you have from your customers.
And so a lot of what I would do is working with the production processes and the different operations to get those manufacturing sections under the takt time. It was kind of what we lived and died by. That is a very much a modern manufacturing situation. I would say it’s recent to the last 60 or 70 years, especially with the kind of explosion of the Toyota Production System and the Lean Production System, which really focuses on getting everything down to the second.
But that’s not how manufacturing started. So let’s back up and think before there was any kind of manufacturing, when there were 60 people in a village. How did people get stuff? What did they do? And I’m not a historian, but my guess is that they made a lot of stuff. They made their chairs, they made their brooms, they might have purchased fabric, but then they made them into different pants, and clothing, and shirts and what they needed.
It was essentially one person doing all of the manufacturing steps. You source the material, you transform the material into workable raw material. So maybe you cut out a pattern or you cut down a tree and then you turn it into through the final product. And you’re doing all of those things, which means that you do have a certain amount of control over the quality in terms of your own personal skills.
So it’s probably gonna be reasonably high quality, but because it’s just you working with it and more than likely you just have hand tools, it’s gonna be pretty low volume. You know, you may have a, in some of the larger areas, you might have a broom shop where you have a broom maker and a couple of apprentices, but even still, that’s not going to produce 40,000 brooms a month.
That’ll produce more than just you, who never makes brooms trying to make one by yourself, but it’s not anywhere near the scale of mass production today. So when did that switch? While I’m sure you’ve heard about the industrial revolution and actually as I was researching this, there were two industrial revolutions.
One was in, I think, 1830s, 40s, 50s, somewhere in there, and then there’s the big industrial revolution that we all think of kind of toward the end of the 1800s. And that’s the one that I’m gonna talk about because as far as I can tell, that’s the one that really shifted from kind of these mom-and-pop shops, apprenticeships, one-off here and there per village to “Oh no, we can literally ship you a dresser anywhere in the entire world.”
I looked up briefly what some of the causes of the industrial revolution are just to see if my instincts were correct, and of course they’re all kind of vague. It’s like we know in increasing tastes and socialization, and science advancements, and like all of these kind of vague clouds. But one that I think is really important to talk about with the industrial evolution, especially how it pertains to manufacturing, is the invention of the railway.
So that was, you know, going in the 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, and I would say by by 1900, most of the United States was pretty well connected by rail. And what that means is that if you’re a little shop and you’re used to making brooms by hand with whatever tools you’ve invented and you read an article or an ad for a broom making machine in New York, you could purchase one of those and it would be very easily shipped to you by rail in Oklahoma.
And suddenly you in Oklahoma can make a whole bunch more brooms, like way more than you’ve ever made before, and maybe you sell so many that you have enough extra money to buy a second machine and a third machine. And all of this happens very gradually. It’s not like we wake up one day and suddenly there’s a 200,000 square foot warehouse cranking out iPhones or anything like that.
This is a very gradual process, but that availability of machinery to make more machinery and then ship it all over the place really gave a lot of people the opportunity to start these companies and have mass manufactured products. And when you have an increase of availability in some kind of product, the price goes down.
Now, in relation to a house like this, 1906, we see a lot of things in this house that to my eye look mass manufactured because we have these wood shops who can turn out wood appliques, and rosettes, and trim just a lot easier than the hand carving that used to have to be done. You can have these fancy, ornate, high-scale finishes in a little farmhouse, and that’s what this house looks like to me.
It looks like he had a little bit of extra money. He went to a catalog for some wood finishes and he splurged just a little bit and got a nice mantle, and he got some rosettes just made the house look a little bit more nice. This time period, this 1900s-ish, is I think the sweet spot for furniture quality and price, because you still are kind of putting things together the way that they used to be put together.
Like I’m sitting here in the bedroom recording this and I’ve pulled one of our Morris chairs into the bedroom because this is the only room in the house that we have a window unit for air conditioning. And if you look at that chair, which happens to be from probably the early 20s, late teens it’s put together like a chair, right?
It has legs, it has sides, it has a bottom, it has a back, the pieces of wood are joined together. Like if you were to make a chair by hand, it probably would look something like that. And I compare this to looking at some Ikea chairs where you have a plywood molded seat and metal legs or you have it all molded acrylic.
You know, that’s just a different kind of manufacturing principle that doesn’t necessarily follow from the way things would be handmade. So what I see in the 1900s or the early 1900s is that the quality of the furniture is still pretty darn high. We’ve economized a little bit because of mass production, but it’s still pretty darn good and pretty darn high quality for the price that they would pay for it back in 1900s.
And the price is important because the prices were low enough that they made so much of this, that I can find this stuff very easily at antique fairs. I don’t buy super nice antiques. I don’t go for super rare things. I like these things that are good quality but are abundant, so I don’t have to pay too much for them. And to me that that like mid-industrial revolution furniture is just the best.
So we’re a long way from one guy making brooms in Oklahoma, and now he owns a factory with 20 broom making machines in Oklahoma, and he’s doing great for himself, and he’s built himself a pretty mansion on the right side of town or whatever. But as they start to grow, what happens next? We start to look to cut costs, right?
And either you’re cutting costs to improve your profit margins or you’re cutting costs to try to meet some market demand. And when you’re reducing costs, you can reduce the labor that it takes to make something. So you might be able to buy a machine that can do something that a human previously did, and so you don’t have to pay that salary anymore.
You just buy the machine and then maybe hire one person who can watch seven machines at once, and you’ve drastically increased your production without necessarily increasing costs. You can shorten the process that it takes to make something. You can make something simpler, or you can make it less complicated to produce, or you can reduce the material costs.
And this is really why I think modern mass manufacturing products are nowhere near the quality that they used to be because the cost of material has become so low and it’s just been driven so far down that you just don’t get the longevity that you used to out of these materials. I don’t necessarily think it’s the entire fault of the companies.
I think us, as consumers, take a little bit of a bit to blame for this, but we’ll talk about that in a minute. Where I start to see quality decrease in antique furniture is in roughly the 20s or 30s. I don’t have very many pieces from that time period, because this is when they stopped doing wood planks for sides, backs of large pieces of furniture, and they switched to plywood and veneer.
It’s not that these pieces are not good anymore, but plywood, just for me personally, is not something that feels super high quality. So that’s why when you pick up a waterfall dresser or a sideboard, it’s gonna be a lot lighter than you might expect because the cost cuttings had already started to hit. After the boom of the industrial revolution, then we start cutting costs, and 30 years later, we have plywood furniture.
Now this continues into the 50s where things start to be made of plastic. We start to get rid of glass and metal for common everyday things, and we’ve replaced it with plastic because that’s a much cheaper material to produce. And you continue into the 70s and the 80s, and the plywood that used to be so cheap has now been replaced by particle board, which is even cheaper to manufacture.
And then that carries you all the way to today where you end up with these furniture stores that have pretty much exclusively plywood or particle board or very inexpensive pine. And then you have to wonder like, “What happened to the high-quality cherry and oak furniture of yesteryear?” And it’s still out there. It’s just very, very pricey.
I consider that kind of a bird’s-eye view of manufacturing, of how we started from a little mom-and-pop store, how we kind of had this golden age of production in terms of quality and price and availability, I think around the turn of the century, and then it’s just sort of been on a decline in terms of quality for the last hundred years.
Of course, the trade off is that things are much cheaper. It’s much easier to get a large variety of things than it has been ever in the history of ever. So where does this come in with planned obsolescence? Planned obsolescence is the idea that a company is intentionally designing something to fail at a specific time period so that you, the customer, will have to come back and buy another one from them.
And I have a few problems with this concept. The one area that I think it’s most likely to happen would be in the area of tech, just because as operating systems get more complicated, it’s a lot more likely that a new operating system will overload old hardware. There’s a lot more to this problem than just saying that the company is out there to just make you miserable and make your refrigerator break three days after the warranty expires and all of this kind of stuff.
I could be totally wrong. They could all have these diabolical plans and they’re just gonna sit here and laugh at me as I make my little statement, but I’m gonna make my statement anyway because I think it’s an interesting thought experiment. From an engineering perspective…
Now, I am not a design engineer, I do not have that kind of attention to detail, but I did take many, many design classes in college. And these design classes consist of dozens of equations that basically take into account the geometry of a piece, the forces on the piece, the material on a piece of something and analyze how, and why, and when it’s going to fail when you put it to use.
There’s even something called finite element analysis, which is a massively complex matrix number system that models exactly and precisely how something will fail when you put it under load. And the thing about all of these equations is that it’s really hard to make something that fails, at that exactly specific point.
It’s really hard to say, “Okay, after exactly five pounds of force, this spoon needs to break.” That’s a lot harder than you think it is. It’s much easier to either massively over-design something so that you know it’s not gonna break under five pounds or massively under designed something so that you know it will never experience five pounds before breaking.
But to make something that exactly perfectly every single time reliably fails at five pounds is incredibly hard. And I think there are two areas in engineering that you can kind of see projects that have to fail at a specific time. And the first one I think is with racing, Formula 1, because those cars cannot afford any extra weight, so nothing can be over-designed.
So they spend millions of dollars trying to make sure that those cars are as precisely designed as possible with no excess. And the other area I think is in space travel. You do not want to be carrying any extra weight to space if you can avoid it. That’s very expensive. You’ve got all the fuel. So you want to make sure that your spaceship is not any heavier than it needs to be.
And both of those industries are extremely expensive to get into. You can’t just go build a race car and expect to have any hope of winning without lots and lots and lots of funding. So the idea that these companies who are making refrigerators, and fans, and stoves are going to spend that kind of capital to make sure that your stove fails three days after the warranty expires.
It’s just not very likely, to me. What I think is more likely is that they are trying to cut costs and they are cutting different areas to see what happens, right? It’s like, “Well, we think this is gonna work, but that’s this year’s model.. And if that happens to be a terrible model, then we’ll just issue a recall or we’ll issue a repair kit, and then we’ll fix it next year.”
And they’re calculating all of this with some version of those calculations and those equations that I said we learned about in college. They have softwares that model these things, where you can plug in all of the features and all of the specs of the materials that you’re using, you can say how everything is gonna be loaded, and then you can just run a simulation you can see what happens.
But within all of those equations and all of those simulations, and calculations, and experiments, and testing, there is something called a factor of safety. And this is literally in multiple equations that I learned in college. It just FOS, factor of safety. And this is an engineering fudge factor.
It’s basically saying, “I might have done something wrong. There might be a void in the material that makes us weaker than we think.” So, even though we want this thing to withstand 50 pounds, we’re gonna put in a factor of safety of three and design it to withstand 150 pounds just in case.
And they take that factor of safety and they put it into a life cycle analysis. And I know I’m rambling here, but just like bear with me because, one, I think this is really cool stuff and, two, I promise we’ll circle back around to planned obsolescence. But in the factor of safety analysis and in these failure analysis, they also have to do a lifecycle analysis. And this, remember I said that we’re gonna yell at the consumers a little bit because I think it’s our fault.
This is where I think it’s our fault. The life cycle analysis is usually something that comes in from sales saying, “How long do we expect this product to be in the market in full use? Do we expect it to be used for three years? Do we expect it to be used for 10 years? 15 years? 30 years?” That drastically changes how the piece is designed.
So let’s take a real world example for this, okay? Because this is one that people love to talk about all the time about how they break and they’re terrible, and that is refrigerators, okay? In our kitchen, we have a 1959 Westinghouse refrigerator. It actually needs to be defrosted right now, but I’m avoiding that because that’s gonna involved carrying a lot of stuff down to our other refrigerator and don’t wanna do it.
But other than needing to be defrost two or three times a year, that refrigerator runs absolutely flawlessly. Think about how often, especially in this day of Pinterest, and renovation shows, and all of this kind of stuff, think about how frequently we renovate our houses. Every 10 years, maybe, every 15 years you totally redo your kitchen.
So if a company is looking at what they need to do to cut costs and they notice that they’re designing refrigerators that are still in perfectly good working order 60 years later, but the market wants to buy new refrigerators every 15 years, what are they gonna do? They are probably going to reduce the life cycle of those refrigerators.
And they’ll probably do that with not using as much metal, not using as many expensive parts. They just don’t need to design them that robustly because there’s no demand for it. Then, of course, the question is, where does the demand come from? Does it come from advertising? Does it come from TV shows?
Which is a whole nother thing in itself. But ultimately if the consumers are buying every 15 years, why would they design something for any longer? So is planned obsolescence real? Are companies intentionally making things worse quality so that we have to come back and buy them again from them in the future? This seems like kind of a bad business strategy to me if you’re intending to piss off your customer base, every time they buy something from you.
I mean, think about how many times you would have to buy something to have it fail a year later. Like how many times would that happen before you wouldn’t go back to that company anymore? Like many things, I think it is a combination of sources. Are companies designing things to last less time?
Yeah, but it’s because we keep buying them more and more frequently. And this is pretty much why I think things are not as good of a quality as they used to be. We started with handmade quality and we have just slowly chipped away at that and chipped away at it until we have an abundance of things and not much quality.
So we used to have low volume high quality, Now we have high volume, low quality. And the way out of this, I think, is to either do the antique thing like I do, because that’s just where I see the most bang for my buck. I can get the most items. I can change my mind without too much of a financial impact.
But another option is that you can intentionally choose very high quality pieces. You can buy solid wood $3,000 chairs, and couches, and beds. You can seek out those high quality niche production areas that are doing things in more of the old fashioned way and more of the handcraft way, and you can buy from them exclusively. But either way, things are not as good of quality as they used to be and it’s a big, big problem to fix.
Oh, Panther, you’re putting your paw on my laptop. Please don’t stop my recording. Thank you, Panther. Okay, I think Panther has decided that that is about enough out of me for today. Baron is over there twitching his ears in agreement. So I guess that was a little bit of a ramble about engineering and manufacturing, but I think it’s really important to not just lay the blame at the companies or at the consumers individually.
It’s like this is a very long trend that has been happening over many, many years, and if you don’t like the way it’s going, then you pretty much have to take responsibility to buy what you like. This is a very complicated trend and it has a lot of reasons for why we are where we are today, and I think it’s very helpful and interesting to look back at how manufacturing used to be, especially with my background in manufacturing and having been told to reduce costs and produce material waste and all of this kind of stuff, as you know, those are the metrics that we’re driving at.
And I just have to think those metrics have to be similar to what has been used in the past, and that’s kind of where we are today. So I will leave some resources about furniture time periods, if you wanna kind of see what I was talking about with older mass manufactured pieces from the 1880s, 90s, 1900, and then kind of how that compares to the 30s, 40s, 50s that will all be in the show notes or on the blog.
And if you want to find the show notes for this podcast episode specifically, you can go to www.farmhousevernacular.com/5 or /podcast. Either one, you can get there either way. And thank you so much for listening. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you learned something. And I will see you next time. Bye!