Wednesday, December 26, 2012


China is a nation filled with ironies.  It’s a purportedly Socialist state in which the images of Chairman Mao that used to gaze down from buildings have largely been replaced by an equally paternal-looking Colonel Sanders.  It's also an enormously proud culture, but one whose ideals of beauty--whether smiling women on shampoo bottles, virile men on packs of underwear, or googooing babies on diaper boxes--are more often than not depicted as Caucasian.

As for everyday Chinese life, forget those romantic images of rural schoolhouses, peasants tending rice paddies, and ancient villages in the clouds.  Such scenes do exist, of course, and though they cater to our lovely perception of China, they’re roughly as accurate as having modern America represented by the shootout street in  “High Noon”.  

In fact, most of China’s people are packed into a narrow band hugging the East Coast, and most of them in turn live in relatively modern housing projects.  This trend is likely to continue, as more and more people leave the countryside for the comparative wealth of the urban centers.

What’s more, despite the bucolic images so dear to Westerners, few Chinese regret trading a rural lifestyle for an urban one.  For many, farmhouse life meant hauling the day’s water supply from the local well in buckets, using a covered wooden pail for a toilet, and heating bath water by the kettleful on a charcoal fire.  South of the Yangtze River, the climate was not considered harsh enough to require heating, so living in these warmer regions ironically meant occasional freezing temperatures indoors.  My wife, who grew up in this region, vividly recalls waking up on cold mornings to find the household towels frozen solid.

Farmhouse living in summertime brought stifling heat and humidity, along with flies, mosquitoes, and various other unwelcome critters in abundance--conditions that can make a clean, air-conditioned apartment with hot and cold running water seem more than a small step up..

While China’s highrise housing blocks may appear impersonal to Westerners, their design has improved dramatically in the past few years.  Most are equal to our own, and the fancier ones have all the conveniences you’d find in an American dwelling and then some:  One well-to-do government official I visited proudly showed off his Japanese-made toilet, an improbable looking device bristling with electronic controls whose various functions I’d rather not guess at.

Curiously, many rural customs persist in this dazzling new urban setting.  The Chinese still prefer to buy their meats and vegetables daily from local farmers, who set up stalls in the local market hall each morning.  This points up another of China’s ironies: While vast portions of the nation are too arid to grow crops, it’s precisely China’s richest farmland--that of the coastal regions--that’s being consumed by development.  Already, vast areas of prime farmland have been paved over with endless ranks of housing projects. 

If building continues at this pace, where will the nation’s food supply come from?   And who will grow it after farmers have abandoned the land or been forced from it by development?  America faced these same questions at the end of the nineteenth century, when fully half of us still lived on farms.  Today, only two percent of us do, and we’ve not only survived but prospered under this trend.  Given its ingenuity and determination, China may well do the same.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Last time, we saw how many well-known brands in the American building industry got their start through innovation and invention . It’s a credential that many of today’s reverse-engineered, flash-in-the-pan competitors can’t lay claim to—something to bear in mind next time you’re tempted by a slickly-advertised brand you’ve never heard of.

Ironically, many old American companies tend to play downplay their long experience, perhaps for fear of seeming fuddy-duddy in today’s high-tech world.  Since I have no such compunctions, however, I’ll single out a few more of our most venerable brands, some of them now well past the century mark.  

Way back in 1901, for example, Chicagoan Albert C. Brown opened a small shop that made plumbing fixtures and other hardware. In 1913, Brown invented a replaceable and virtually drip-free faucet cartridge which he called the Quaturn, because a mere quarter-turn of the handle could turn the water on or off.  Brown’s invention soon became the mainstay of his Chicago Faucet Company. His cartridge has been refined over the years, but amazingly, it’s still interchangeable with any Quaturn faucet manufactured since 1913. 

Some American firms not only go back a long way, but also practically created their own industries. Willis Haviland Carrier, for instance, invented the basics of modern air conditioning in 1902, which helps explain why the Carrier name has been keeping people cool ever since.

Perhaps less of a household name--unless you’re in the habit of reading your door latches--is that of German immigrant Walter Reinhold Schlage.  A master mechanic and inventor, Schlage’s first patent, granted in 1909, was for a door lock with a built-in button that turned the room lights on and off.  The idea didn’t catch on, but around 1920, Schlage came up with the now-familiar lockset with a push-button lock centered in the door knob.  

What’s more, he designed the new lock to fit in a simple round hole bored in the door, eliminating the need for expensive mortising.  This so-called “cylindrical lock” created a minor revolution in the building industry, since it could be installed in minutes using ordinary hand tools.  These two innovations remain the basis of all interior locksets today.

A more familiar household brand traces its lineage back to 1911, when two brothers in St. Joseph, Michigan founded the Upton Machine Company to produce electric motor-driven wringer washers. Eventually, retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. began marketing Upton-manufactured washers under their house brand of Kenmore. Today, the little company founded by the Uptons is Whirlpool Corporation, the world’s largest appliance manufacturer.

More recent domestic products are just as likely to have sprung from innovation by American firms.  A classic example: Around 1946, Dr. Percy Spencer, an engineer with Raytheon Corporation, was surprised to find that the candy bar in his pocket had melted while he was working on a device that generated microwaves. The following year, Raytheon demonstrated the world's first microwave oven, calling it the Radarange. In 1967, having acquired Amana Refrigeration, Raytheon introduced the first countertop Amana Radarange oven.  By 1975, microwave ovens were outselling gas ranges.

Today, of course, you’d be hard pressed to find any microwave ovens--including Amana’s--that are actually made in the U.S.A.  Still, it’s worth giving credit where it’s due.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Aside from my usual grumbling over Hewlett Packard products, I seldom mention brand names in this blog.  Today, however, I’m going to mention a whole raft of them.  Before I’m accused of selling out, though, let me say that none of the firms I mention have paid me to drop their names, nor so much as taken me out to lunch.  Just for future reference, however, I could probably be bought off with a nice fresh rhubarb pie.  

Today’s building materials market is flooded with newcomer brands.  While choice and competition are generally a good thing, the current galaxy of choices in the building field is largely among a whole raft of Johnny-Come-Lately manufacturers, many based overseas, whose main objective is simply to cash in on America’s vast home-improvement market.  This unpleasant fact ought to make consumers think twice before purchasing brands they’ve never heard of before, no matter how slickly advertised.

Quite a few American brands, by comparison, have histories dating back a century or more. While a distinguished past doesn’t necessarily guarantee modern worth--as General Motors can amply attest--there’s nevertheless no substitute for long experience. And there are plenty of experienced old brands to go around.  

One well-known American plumbing fixture maker, for example, traces its lineage back to 1872, when John B. Pierce opened a tinware shop in Ware, Massachusetts. Pierce later founded one of three firms that merged in 1892 to form the American Radiator Company.  In 1929, American Radiator in turn merged with The Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company. By the eve of World War II, products from this unwieldy new combine--it was not called American-Standard until 1948--could be found in about half the homes in the U.S.. 

Just as venerable a name in plumbing is the company founded by 29-year-old Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler in 1873 to produce cast iron and steel farm implements. In 1883 Kohler applied a baked enamel coating to one of his company’s horse trough/hog scalders, thus creating the first Kohler bathtub. 

Other old hands in the building industry include the window manufacturer Anderson, founded in 1903 by Danish immigrant Hans Andersen and his family in Hudson, Wisconsin.  In 1932, in the very depths of the Depression, Anderson introduced the first fully assembled window unit in the industry.  This was a revolutionary idea in a day when windows were either shipped in pieces, or else were locally built from scratch.  

Another familiar name in windows got its start in 1925, when Pete and Lucille Kuyper founded a small Des Moines company to manufacture a novel type of window screen that retracted onto a roller.  The Kuypers’s Rolscreen Company moved to Pella, Iowa, the following year, began manufacturing wood windows, and the rest is history.

Innovations, whether large or small, have been central to the rise of the companies recounted above.  Next time we’ll look at a few more such stalward American brands, some of whom essentially invented their own industries.  So take note, industry reps--there’s still time to get me that rhubarb pie.

Monday, December 3, 2012


People do lots of thinking when they remodel a bathroom.  They agonize over colors, countertop materials, and choosing the latest lavatory sink, but too often, they overlook the kind of improvements that would matter most. 

Simply upgrading your bathroom with fancy fixtures and materials won’t do a thing to improve its function.  You’ll just be trading a lousy old bathroom for a lousy new one.  So make sure you don’t miss these basics:

•  Don’t rule out relocating a toilet, a sink, or even a bathtub if doing so would definitely improve the room’s layout.  The old notion that moving plumbing fixtures will break the bank simply isn’t true in most cases--in a major bathroom remodel, the biggest expense is in finishes, not in rough plumbing. 

A common example:  Building codes allow a toilet to be centered in a space as little as thirty inches wide.  Yet many older bathrooms have much more space than that between the toilet and adjoining cabinets or walls.  In a case like this, moving the toilet to the modern minimum may gain you a nice chunk of counter space. 

•  Stay away from hard-to-clean fixtures, no matter how fashionable.  The usual suspects include topmount lavatory sinks, whose raised rims prevent puddled water from being wiped directly into the sink.  And the cleaning headaches inherent in those oh-so-trendy free-standing-bowl style sinks hardly need pointing out.

Likewise, while sparkling glass shower enclosures look great in designer magazines, in real life they’re a drudge to keep clean.  For my money, a shower curtain--which won’t obstruct the room when not in use, and which can be easily replaced--is a more practical choice.

•  In the shower, provide a niche for storing shampoo bottles and the like. Make sure the soap dish is high enough to avoid the need to stoop down, and provide a hook or bar for hanging a washcloth.  A small built-in bench or at least a ledge will be welcome, too.

•  Set aside some wall space for both 18-inch wide face towel bars and 24-inch bath towels. Ideally, the bath towels should be within arm’s length of the tub or shower, and the face towels should be right beside the lavatory sink.  If space is tight, either can be mounted on the inside of the bathroom door, or you can use towel rings instead.

•  Building codes require an exhaust fan only if the bathroom doesn’t have an openable window, but you should plan to include one regardless.  Insist on a top-quality, super-quiet model--not one of those howling bargain-basement jobs.  Better yet, consider a remote-mounted fan, which will be even quieter. 

•  If the bathroom feels cramped but there’s no way to physically enlarge it, try an optical illusion:  Use a large sheet mirror on the wall behind the lavatory, extending from corner to corner and from countertop to ceiling, to visually double the room’s volume.  Although it takes a little extra effort to incorporate a mirror this big, the result is far more dramatic than the usual scrap of mirror screwed to the wall.

•  Lastly, don’t forget storage for bulky items like toilet paper.  To this end, a vanity cabinet is more practical than a pedestal sink, though it may not necessarily suit the style of your house.  Here again, you might wish to trade fashion for function.