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Why keep an ancient appliance?

By Jo-Anne Rowney BBC News Magazine

 

After a national search, Digital UK claims to have found the oldest working television, made in 1936. But in a culture that sees everything as disposable, what makes us hold on to our appliances?

OLDEST WORKING TV SET
1936 TV found in London
1936 Marconiphone 702
Cost 60 guineas when new
12-inch black and white screen
Cathode ray tube takes up rest of cabinet
Dates from time of first BBC television broadcast

With its walnut veneer and Art Deco inlays, this 73-year-old television set was designed to be more than an appliance - it had to be an attractive piece of furniture to justify the space it took up, and its eye-watering price tag of 60 guineas (about 11,000 today).

Nor would its proud owners be able to spend all day glued to the box - back then, there was one channel, and two hours of programming a day.

But it was built to last and still works today, thanks in part to some jiggery-pokery with digital converters.

And now it has been named the oldest working TV set in the UK, after stiff competition from hundreds of entrants in a nationwide search by the National Media Museum and Digital UK.

Searches for the oldest TV, fridge, toaster, microwave, vacuum cleaner - delete as appropriate - typically throw up many challengers.

So why do people hang on to ancient appliances for so long?

It's definitely not because they're cheap to run. Older models drain energy faster than anything on the market today. And repairs are likely to be more expensive than the cost of a modern replacement.

No, it's down to something more important - loyalty.

Frederick Shepherd, of Cheltenham, claims to have bought his microwave in the 1960s when these were billed as "life-changing" additions to the kitchen.

After four decades and 150,000 meals, he claims it's the oldest in Britain still in use.

"I use it to warm up my baked beans, and it warms my Horlicks nicely before bed," says the pensioner.

1966 demo of a microwave
Demonstrating a 1960s microwave

"We hang on to it because it's still going. Only on the day it packs in will I replace it."

When Mr Shepherd says he bought his microwave, there were so few sold, the shop assistants needed demonstration sessions from the manufacturer.

It cost him "a small fortune" at 250 - about 3,000 in today's money - but Mr Shepherd has got more than his money's worth.

"We've only had to fix the bulb once about five years ago - that's not bad."

Then there are the memories it evokes.

"[My wife] Francis used to cook the Christmas puddings in it, and would make food in it for the kids. It brings back some good memories."

Old faithful

Mr Shepherd's loyalty is not that unusual. Among claimants to the various other oldest appliance titles are:

  • 1931 fridge, bought second-hand for 7.50 in 1969 by Maureen and Alan Mace, of County Durham
  • A 1963 washing machine, bought for 60 by Albert and Mabel Fletcher
  • And a 1950s vacuum cleaner

Not bad, when a study by the National Association of Home Builders found you can only expect your gas cooker to last 15 years, clothes dryers and refrigerators for about 13, and dishwashers and microwave ovens for nine years.

1950s turntable... and curtains and chair
This 1950s turntable would today be highly sought-after by collectors

It is an accepted rule that older appliances are better quality, says Richard Elliott, professor of marketing and consumer research at Bath university.

Manufacturers no longer build to last, so while modern devices fall into disrepair, older models continue to function beyond expectation.

And while durability is an inevitable factor in keeping a product, its associated memories are more important, says Mr Elliott.

"There is a lot of evidence that a particular item, whether a kitchen utensil or a toaster, is a carrier of meaning."

Not only does the owner trust its performance, it reminds them of the family member from whom they inherited it, or the occasion on which it was given as a present.

1950s food mixer
Perhaps it was a wedding gift

"Having a vintage piece may look like it's for fashion," says Mr Elliot. "But it's more likely to be an aunt or grandparent who owned it before."

He himself is the proud owner of an old fashioned measuring cup, kept as a reminder of his grandmother.

"It's still in ounces. It's one of the few things I have of hers, and I remember her using it every day."


Got an ancient but still working appliance yourself? Send us a photo and some details to yourpics@bbc.co.uk with the subject line "OLD APPLIANCE". Or MMS 61124 (UK) or +44 7725 100100 (Int MMS). Click here for terms and conditions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

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