This winter, I broke a snow shovel, feather duster, leaf rake and stainless steel measuring cup. Not since childhood have I been violent with my tools. In fact, I treat them with the utmost respect. So, I had to ask, what is going on here?
Admittedly, we had some bizarre snowfall this year, sort of a snow cone/slushy mixture. However, the hard plastic shovel was not inexpensive or very old. In my opinion, it should not have cracked and split so easily. I never broke a shovel as a Wisconsin youngster, even when using them as sleds in the cow pasture, sometimes standing on them like downhill surfboards barreling over frozen cow patties and rocks.
The plastic feather duster handle broke away about an inch at a time. All I have left now is the cluster of feathers. The wooden rake handle, just three years old, snapped in half during ordinary use. And, the spot weld gave way on the measuring cup handle while scooping oatmeal. These are just a few examples of the poor quality we now accept as normal.
A popular commercial slogan when I was growing up in the 1960s was Zenith’s “quality goes in before the name goes on.” Incidentally, we had only one TV all the years of my childhood, a tubeless black-and-white Zenith.
Back then, we took for granted that first-rate products always would be made in the United States, and only cheap articles came from overseas.
Zenith manufacturing plants were sprinkled all over the county in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Even tiny Marshfield, Missouri, had a plant that employed a considerable percentage of the town. People in Marshfield old enough to remember still refer to the Zenith plant closing like they would a catastrophe.
Among other industry firsts, Zenith engineers pioneered a reliable wireless remote control, the “Space Command”. Zenith invented subscription television and FM multiplex stereo, and is credited with developing flat-face picture tubes and HDTV years ahead of anyone else in North America. Incorporated in 1923, Zenith introduced the first portable radio, mass-produced AC radio and push-button tuning.
Still, by the 1970s, Zenith was losing its hold on the market with the influx of imported Japanese electronics. In 1974 Zenith brought federal suit against major Japanese TV and electronics manufacturers for violating U.S. Antitrust Laws and the Antidumping Act of 1916. Sears and Motorola companies soon joined the lawsuit. By 1987, millions of litigation dollars later, the Supreme Court dismissed the cases and refused to hear appeals. Zenith ultimately filed for bankruptcy and is now owned by South Korean LG Electronics.
Meanwhile, in his first bid for president, Texas billionaire Ross Perot warned in 1991 campaign speeches that Americans would hear a loud sucking sound as U.S. jobs went across the border to Mexico. Perot lost the election to Bill Clinton, who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in January 1992. It’s said Mexico is now hearing the sucking sound in stereo as jobs there leave for India and China.
Any craftsman understands the frustration of walking through big-box stores and seeing an item selling for much less than is possible for us to make that item. Gaping at a cute matching potholder and oven mitt set in a mega-store for $1.99 (not a sale, but everyday price), I whined to a fellow seamstress, Joyce, about it. Even if I were to receive the fabric totally free, already cut into shapes and pinned together, I’d still have to stitch and package the set for $1.99.
Joyce mentioned the hand-crocheted blankets she’d seen in another huge retail store for less than $50 in all sorts of dazzling colors and sizes from twin to king. The same is true of hand-quilted bed covers. It had taken my friend several months to crochet a blanket years ago, but it is still in use and cherished today. I see many of those inexpensive imported quilts barely used, but already falling apart, in thrift stores for a dollar or two. I returned to the store to look again at the oven mitt set and discovered the same faulty workmanship. The potholder image was stamped onto the fabric and the lightweight potholder was barely larger than my hand. Ah, that made me feel better.
I wondered, though, if the average consumer who is not a craftsperson understands about quality materials and fabrication.
Founded on the principles of selling U.S. made products to support local economies, Walmart created a marketing campaign last year to bring back U.S. products, proclaiming two-thirds of items in many of its stores are made in U.S.A.
Since we’ve disassembled our manufacturing plants, however, maybe only imports are available. An online store owner friend has difficulty locating American-made products to sell, and has purchased products she was told were American made, later discovering a made-in-elsewhere sticker.
Just like Zenith testified decades ago, those of us who make goods to sell "guarantee the quality goes in." I concentrate on every stitch when treadle-sewing a clothespin bag, and don’t hesitate to rip out a line of stitching I consider unsatisfactory. My mission is to also reduce the load on our world’s landfills. I recycle fabrics and use 100-percent cotton whenever I can. This dedication to preserving our natural resources is not unique to me.
Clothespin maker Herrick Kimball of Monrovia, New York, doesn’t aspire to be the clothespin baron of the world. He wants only to make the best product possible, one he can proudly put his name on. Herrick even helps others learn to make clothespins to sell themselves. His Classic American Clothespins are not inexpensive, but will last a generation or two or three. And you won’t see your freshly-washed clothes blowing across the yard as often happens with the cheap imports. Notice the comparison in this photo with Herrick's clothespin on the right.
Neighborly goat-soap maker Janet Nysewander of Happy Daze Farm presented a workshop last week at the local food co-op to teach soap-making. This may seem contrary to her soap-selling business. But, like other crafters I know, Janet wants to keep alive a lost art, help others become self-sufficient, restore local trade, encourage using all-natural, renewable products and promote alternatives to imports.
Other local crafters here include weavers, potters, gardeners, cheese makers, quilters, woodworkers, leatherworkers, and, of course, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. None of us can make our wares cheaper than the big-box stores can sell them for.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.