"Five Decades of Insulator Collecting"
by (Part 1)
Perhaps the earliest stages of my interest in old things that I now enjoy has a lot to do with the fact that as a young boy, I got a lot of pleasure by paying much attention to certain aspects of Americana that were commonplace along roadways, railroads and just about anywhere outdoors as I peered out of the windows of my parents' car. In the years to follow, I loved to ride my bicycle and even took long walks in search of things such as some models of 1940s and 1950s cars (especially convertibles); colorful gasoline station signs; telephone and telegraph poles and the old-fashioned streetlights that once graced the roadways I traveled. Today, those vintage automobiles, gas station advertising signs, the colorful glass insulators that adorned utility wires and the classy roadway fixtures once commonly were seen are now desirable collectors' items in many instances. Somehow, as I grew older, I became increasingly more interested in the latter two areas of interest and for the past four decades I have become a rather ambitious collector/enthusiast of glass insulators and early day streetlighting fixtures. Unfortunately, due to the advent of modern communications technology, most glass insulators have become obsolete and removed from service. And, with innovations in more energy-efficient lighting sources, the "guardians of the night" that faithfully lit our country's streets and highways have been replaced by monolithic fixtures that all look the same, not having a bit of personality built into them like their predecessors did. My present collection of streetlighting fixtures and glass insulators, along with the personalized displays of them that I have built in recent years are a tribute and pay homage to a piece of Americana that has virtually disappeared from our nation's landscape.
This page is dedicated to my love for insulators and will acquaint you with some of the memorable moments I have experienced as I have pursued this hobby. My passion for insulators has pretty much paralleled my affliction for and collecting streetlighting-related memorabilia through the years. The following paragraphs are intended to be separate from my accompanying streetlighting biographical section that describes my avocation for streetlights and of related adventures. The supplemental reading as presented below will provide you with more complete composite of my overall utility-related collectible interests and background with specific emphasis upon my insulator collecting endeavors.
THE EARLY DAYS
Looking back, the exact place in time when my interests in streetlights and insulators was sparked is a bit hard to pin down. My best guess would be that it happened around when Elvis Presley was on the onset of becoming a legend - around 1954 or so. At any rate, I was about three or four years old at the time, and it was one of a few summers in the 1950s when my parents, I and a few relatives made a pilgrimage from Brockton, Massachusetts (a Boston suburb) to Quincy, Illinois to visit my great aunt and uncle. During one of those long drives along hundreds of miles of scenic back roads, an affliction was bestowed upon me that resulted in a permanent change in my life's direction. Along the roads we traveled, the interesting and intriguing sight of seemingly endless miles of open-wire telephone lines of many differing configurations, adorned and graced with multitudes of rainbow-like, sparkling glass insulators fascinated this young boy more than anything Santa could ever imagine bringing down the chimney! That was when my affliction for insulators all began.
After arriving back home concluding our trip it was clearly evident that my newly captured interest in open-wire lines, insulators and pole-line architecture simply was no passing thing, according to my elder relatives who remember everything all so well.
Playtime in our backyard in Brockton consisted of making my own miniature pole lines. These were ingeniously and personally constructed from using discarded wooden window shade rollers or sticks as poles; and Popsicle sticks or clothespins simulating crossarms. My late mother's sewing box was commonly devoid of colored thread because that readily available material nicely and conveniently resembled open-wire strung between my "poles". This backyard avocation continued for many years. The older I got, the more complex and creative my displays became. Needless to say, neighborhood kids were rather mystified and most curious about my handiwork, which I shared with very few others. About at the age of 11 or 12, I enjoyed the thrill of nailing scaled down "crossarms" (typically, 1 by 3's or 2 by 3's, or whatever else was available) to some of the trees at about 15 feet up around the extreme fringes of our yard, keeping them not so obvious to onlookers, especially in the wintertime when the trees lacked foliage. Nails three or four inches long set into my homemade crossarms served as pins while flattened-out oblong and cut-to-size curtain rods made for neat braces. Bureau knobs, broken-off bottle necks, and glass coffee pot tops made for great looking insulators until later years when I actually had a supply of the real ones to set upon my simulation crossarms. "Electrification" took first took place about early 1964 when I devised a battery operated streetlight using an aluminum pie plate as a reflector and a hula hoop cut in half as an upswing, curved mounting bracket. This was quite a revelation, making my flashlight bulb-illuminated fixture look real, making it come to life!
Up until 1966 when I was in my early teens, open wire telephone and telegraph lines were a common part of the landscape in the area where I lived. So, during my younger years there was an abundance of good looking pole lines to continually admire. The older I got, the more fascinated I became about this type of scenery. In order to personally satisfy my admiration and entertain myself above and beyond constructing my miniature and scaled down pole lines, I also got a lot of pleasure by habitually drawing countless varieties of utility poles in notebooks and within organized pads of paper. Many of these "paper pole lines" progressed from page to page to resemble actual ongoing circuits. In addition, pole replacements and modifications took place upon replacing the old pole page with a new one. Numbers affixed to poles resembled pole numbers and actually were page numbers so I could keep my "lines" in proper continuity.
My imagination used to go rather wild, often as far as I'd let it go. Meticulous, specific detail was given to every aspect of my illustrations, particularly to insulators, streetlights, porcelain box-style cutouts and other objects I fondly enjoyed peering at upon the real lines, hardly ceasing to stop looking up! Needless to say, Santa was very generous each Christmas with pens, paper and pencils for such engineering endeavors!
MY FIRST INSULATORS
Having been a devout insulator enthusiast for several years, it was not until I was nearly nine years old when I acquired my very first specimen. That was when a very powerful hurricane tore through southeastern Massachusetts during the fall of 1960. The eye of Hurricane Donna had passed right over the city we lived in and the aftermath was an awesome littering of trees, branches, poles, wires and all sorts of other debris strewn about our neighborhood's streets. This and the many broken poles was a sight I'll never forget. After the storm had passed the next day, my pursuit was to capture one of those neat looking glass or porcelain objects used on crossarms which wires were attached to. They all seemed all too close but yet so far!
Utility crews evidently were faced with a shortage of materials, especially insulators. Unbroken specimens must have been quickly reused for rebuilding damaged lines because I could not find a single one laying about anywhere despite the extensive damage. However, I did manage to eventually discover two unmarked pumpkin speckled orange U-294 "hats" that were chipped on one side. That was like finding pure gold to me, especially since those always had been my favorite porcelain pintypes to look at atop poles and continued to be for many years (even to this day!) especially where older lines were still kept in service. My first two insulators displayed nicely from their unbroken sides, and I proudly carried them around admiring them on the wooden pins they were found with.
I was truly fascinated with my first two insulators and the pursuit for more started right after that. It was not until after a few days after Christmas 1960 when I got my first, whole, undamaged insulator. While an Edison company crew was working on a pole about a block or two away from my home, I took notice while watching them that one of the linemen on the pole tossed what certainly looked like an insulator down onto the ground, about six to ten feet from the pole's base. It actually landed on someone's front lawn and I knew it survived the fall because there was at least four inches of snow on the ground. Fearing the answer would be an undeniable, cold-hearted, indisputable "No!" from the groundman in charge if I had asked for it, and feeling the line crew would not miss it anyway, I decided to take matters literally into my own hands by maneuvering closer to the insulator's new resting spot, with distinctly absconding with it in mind. I finally could see the hole in the snow where it was hiding. Apparently none of the workers on the ground did not see the "big drop", which was in plain sight of the rear of the utility's truck. Keeping a close, careful eye on the groundworkers and when the coast finally became clear (it seemed like hours but really was only a few minutes), I casually wandered still closer toward the landing site. I then could see that the object tossed down indeed was an insulator and looked undamaged, too! At the "proper" moment nobody appeared to be looking in my direction so my right hand very quickly went to grab the insulator; I instantly put it into my coat pocket and then scurried directly for home, running through a few back yards, not looking back!
I was very proud of this dear prize and I remember owning it for several years. I was so enchanted in fact that most places I went, the insulator traveled with me too (except to school, of course). That was the case for a long time. Other favorite insulators came into my collection during years thereafter and I do not know whatever happened to that very first insulator. However, I loved it and it ushered me onto the way to collecting many hundreds more in following years (which was conducted in a much more legitimate manner!). The insulator, by the way, was a mottled brownish-black unmarked U-308. It appeared with me in many family photographs.
During my earlier heyday (1961-1967) my favorite pastime was following the Edison Company crews around the city I lived in, often spending the entire day talking with them and watching the linemen work. They usually told me where their upcoming job site locations were planned, so I could find them. When I could not locate my favorite crew, calling the company's dispatcher proved effective. I was able to acquire a lot of insulators from such visitations and I made some good friends with those folks, who were very receptive to my collecting endeavors. This was particularly true with a line crew that was led by a supervisor named Rick. He was an exceptionally nice gentleman who enjoyed my company as much as I did with him and his line crew gang. Frequently he would let me assist as their groundman. Helping out with small tasks like coiling up old wire, locating needed items stored in the truck, cleaning up the job site at the end of the day was really exciting! Most memorable was a bucket truck ride up to a newly installed streetlight to perform the "glove test". That meant placing the glove over the photocontrol to darken it to assure that the fixture was working properly. Excitement gleamed in my eyes as the new incandescent lamp illuminated right before me, about 25 feet up in the air, in its shiny radial wave fixture! There was another larger investor-owned electric company nearby and numerous municipal utilities in my area who also were very kind and inspirational as I worked to gather as many different types of insulators and related "go-withs" as I could. Rather than hanging out with their line crews, I usually frequented their headquarters where I was typically quite welcome and the staff people I knew and got acquainted with were most interested in my endeavors, helping me out with obsolete gear of this type whenever it was available.
I had already acquired a keen interest in other related utility pole items during the early 1960s, which included porcelain, box-style fuse cutouts, lightning arresters and streetlighting fixtures. I always liked looking at them as they resided along with their neighboring insulators along utility pole lines. Accumulating assortments of these insulator-counterparts or "go-withs" came in as a close second to my insulator collecting at the time. They were not quite as accessible as insulators but I managed to amass a nice variety of them.
About 1965 I was in the midst of graduating from scaled-down, miniature pole lines that traversed around the perimeter of our backyard to more of a semi-full size version which was situated in our yard's rearmost corner. This consisted of an eight-foot high pole with one crossarm outfitted with insulators, some go-withs and a house current powered 100 watt mercury vapor street light. This fixture was of the common NEMA head design, complete with a plastic open-bottomed refractor. It was compliments of the Line Material Company, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had written them describing my interest in streetlights and they were nice enough to send me a functional sample that I put to very good use!
I enjoyed and got a lot of pleasure as I spread my display out a bit, adding more insulators, wire and related accessories. My parents were quite patient, indeed! They really did not mind my showmanship as long as it was kept neat and relatively out of plain view - 'out of sight, out of mind'. As a "preventive" measure I made certain that all of my outdoor lights were extinguished before my father returned home from his second shift job shortly after 11PM. He was not so keen about someone as young as I was experimenting with 120 volts of house current, however, he said little about this matter. Actually, I heard more about increases in his electric bill, which he attributed to my electrified lighting projects. In addition to my mercury lamp fixture, I operated several radial wave fixtures from a Sears 12 volt output battery charger which I had long saved up for. It ran one 6.6 ampere, 12 volt, 1,000-lumen streetlighting bulb and a few low-voltage clear Christmas tree lamps that I inserted inside larger outer bulbs for a more realistic look. In fact I remember a few complimentary words from my mother about how my active streetlighting exhibit made for good security lighting!
Cooperation, acceptance and encouragement from my elders and others was instrumental in helping me in my early day collecting pursuits, and made me a quite happy young boy as I approached my teen years. They provided all the necessary ingredients that developed me into a most enthusiastic insulator collector.
CORRESPONDENCE AND VISITS TO INSULATOR COMPANIES
In addition to the linemen I knew from my area, a lot of support came from pen pals. These were not insulator collectors; rather, these were individuals who were public relations and engineering staff at several of the porcelain insulator companies prominent at that time, notably General Electric, Lapp and Ohio Brass. My correspondent at O-B and others there were so impressed with me and my determined zeal for insulators that they did a full page paid advertisement titled: "What, Beatles? This Young Man Has Eyes For Insulators Only!" This article appeared in the November 24, 1966 issue of Public Utilities Fortnightly Magazine and in Electrical World Magazine also that month. This write-up spoke about my insulator collecting endeavors and visit to the Ohio Brass facilities in Mansfield, Ohio during the summer of 1966. This took place on another family trip to Quincy, Illinois and I had the opportunity to meet one of my most respected pen pals there that worked in the administrative department. My visit included a first-class tour of their manufacturing facility in nearby Barberton and even a personal introduction to the O-B's president!
Also, while on the way back home during that trip I had arrangements to meet a couple engineering people at the Lapp Insulator Company in LeRoy, New York. Like at O-B, I was treated like a king; got a fantastic tour of their plant and received production samples, too. Not bad for a fourteen year old! It was amazing to many of our friends and relatives that the busy companies that I had come in contact with always found the time and resources to promptly write and inspire such a young insulator enthusiast!
Exchanging letters on an continual basis with insulator company representatives and receiving occasional production samples and catalogs in the mail added extra spark to the momentum and to the spirit of my insulator collecting activities. Maintaining such regular correspondence with these individuals was most enjoyable and enabled me to learn much more about the technical background about insulators. It was neat when the mutual friendships eventually led to meeting in person.
Another of my most exciting experiences was during our family trip to Washington, DC during the summer of 1965. On our way back arrangements had been made so I could meet a representative at the General Electric Insulator Department's public relations office and manufacturing facility in Baltimore, MD. I had been exchanging letters with her for nearly two years by that time and upon visiting them I was treated to a VIP tour of their insulator factory, which was truly amazing! This was the first time I had ever seen an insulator-making operation in person. A second visit there took place in the summer of 1967 during another trek to the Washington, DC vicinity and I was warmly greeted there once again.