Are things better now than a hundred years ago?

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Forum topic by MrRon posted 05-03-2015 04:25 PM 879 views 0 times favorited 10 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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3892 posts in 2665 days

05-03-2015 04:25 PM

Many years ago in this country, machinery makers built machines of high quality. Although these makers are no longer in business, their machines still exist and are still being used today. Trying to compare them with today’s machine offerings is like comparing apples to oranges. I still have several machines that were made almost 75 years ago and are still in service today. I haven’t done much to maintain them, as they never really needed much maintenance. They were accurate and remain so after all these years. How is this possible? The answer is; the makers back then worked hard to provide the best possible product because it was a matter of personal pride to do so. In today’s economy, machinery makers (I’m talking consumer products, not industrial) will cut corners as much as they can to increase profit for themselves and the stockholders. Of course overseas competition is part of the equation, but also it’s a lack of response from the consumer. We have been programed by marketeering to accept less for our money. Way back, most manufacturers were not trying to get wealthy, only comfortably well off. Today it’s a different story. They want to become “filthy” rich. That results in products being made that are less than perfect, but “acceptable” to the public. As long as they can get away with it, there is no reason for them to give it 100%. As consumers, we tend to accept less because someone tells us “things wear out and need to be replaced”. That is just another way of saying “you have to buy more in order to keep my business growing and so I can make more money”. As long as you accept what I have to sell you, everything is fine (for me). I don’t subscribe to that idea. I look to other countries like Japan where people demand nothing but the best. Their companies respond to the demand. That pursuit for perfection is ingrained in the people of Japan, whether they be consumers, factory workers or CEO’s. That quality carries over and extends to other parts of the world as well.

10 replies so far

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4031 posts in 1620 days

#1 posted 05-03-2015 04:56 PM

Consumers want cheap, so that’s what they get. Were American tools built better back in the day? Yes – but in terms of todays prices, they were significantly more expensive as well. For example, my 1950 Delta band saw (model 28-207) listed for $138.90. That was just the saw and stand. A 1/2HP motor was another $56.25 and the switch was another $3.75. That put the total at just under $200 without tax ($198.90).

If you punch that into the CPI inflation calculator, that works out to $1,937.19 in todays dollars.


PS: That’s why my ‘newest’ tool dates from 1983 and my oldest is from 1936 – and they all look and perform better than they did when new.

-- Brad in FL - To be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid

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169 posts in 1632 days

#2 posted 05-03-2015 10:16 PM

I suspect that in part it is less a matter of degradation of quality and more a matter of making a wider variety of quality and durability. Like you said, you are referring to consumer grade products and I wonder how much bigger the consumer grade market is now vs. 100 years ago. I have a table saw I use for perhaps an average of 10 minutes a week or less. Do I need the durability of a machine that a full-time craftsman would choose to purchase? Certainly not. I also get to pay an order of magnitude less because I’m willing to forgo the quality.

Also, even when I do wish to spend the extra money on a new-yet-quality product, it is a very difficult thing to do. Quality and reliability are hard to measure or quantify and therefor hard to advertise and hard to select a product by. This is in part due to the fact that there are so many lower quality tools but it makes it very difficult to be one of the consumers helping to turn this around.

I will also point out that while large power tools do seem to generally suffer from what you describe, I don’t think it applies to the smaller tools. There continue to be significant advances such that having a cordless drill, for example, last for twenty years won’t do you much good. The new ones are so much better than 10-20 years ago that you want new ones anyways so having paid for the extra quality often won’t be worthwhile.

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3892 posts in 2665 days

#3 posted 05-04-2015 06:20 PM

It has always been my personal experience that tools I bought 30+ years ago, are still in use to this day, but recent purchases of tools , say 3 years ago or even less, have failed. I bought a Makita 9.6V driver/drill around 30 years ago and other than a new battery or two, the tool is still going strong today. Not the case with a Bosch 12V impact driver I bought 3 years ago. I didn’t use it all that much, and all of a sudden, the trigger switch failed. A new switch would cost $56, so I went and bought another Bosch impact driver. Now Bosch is supposed to be a “quality” tool, but it’s durability is less than what I expect from a quality tool. Am I expecting too much for my money? I don’t think so. As I said before, the newer generations tend to accept less because they have been programmed by marketeers to do so. My generation (I’m 80) knows that quality can be had today as well as it had been made 100 years ago. Growing up in the 40’s and 50’s, I bought most of my tools. They were great quality tools and didn’t cost me an arm and a leg. I was considered middle class. In my first real job, I made $40 a week and I had money to spare to buy tools. I lost some of those tools over the years, but the few I still have, I use almost daily. In fact, I treasure them because I know there are none today that can match the quality of those old tools. On this forum and other forums, I advocate older tools in lieu of brand new tools; not because I’m a cheapskate, but because the quality was better. Due to the fact that older tools are still around; proves their durability. I understand that “casual” woodworkers don’t want to spend a lot of money on tools. For them, the “throw away” society was invented. I know I’m in the minority. Tool makers would go out of business if they had to depend on guys like me. When Henry Ford made his model T, it was so reliable that owners would keep it for years, expecting it to last almost forever. Ford quickly learned that he would go out of business if he didn’t have repeat buyers; the throw away (or planned obsolescence) idea was born.

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3599 posts in 1909 days

#4 posted 05-04-2015 06:40 PM

I have a Milwaukee 14.4v 1/2” drive drill. It’s about 17 years old, and I only bought it because my son neglected to put my Makita 9.6v drill away when we left a truckstop in North Carolina.
It didn’t last long on the frame of the truck but waited until we got into construction before it and the box containing a lot of expensive bits, (over 5/8”), went overboard.
No way to stop, so it was a total loss. I’ll bet the construction crew enjoyed those bits!

My Milwaukee has gone through a set of batteries, covered by a recall so I got 4 new batteries to replace the original 2….. which was nice of them.
The old drill is still going strong and as tough as ever. Runout is still minimal, only .003 when I checked it last year.

I also buy old tools mostly, in fact, the wife unit just bought me 4 Disston hand saws for $6 at a local flea market.
A couple are from the turn of the 19th/20th century and still look almost new.

I will pass these down to my son if he promises not to leave them out where he hurts them!

-- Improvise.... Adapt...... Overcome!

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656 posts in 1532 days

#5 posted 05-04-2015 07:17 PM

Tool quality aside, 100 years ago we were in the middle of the First World War. I’d say things are better even if the tools aren’t as good.

-- James

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1820 posts in 1410 days

#6 posted 05-04-2015 09:16 PM

I think there are a lot of tools better today. If you buy quality such as Veritas or Lie-Nielsen, they are certainly as good or better. Some of the new grades for blades are great. I think saw blades are better.

I think it is way to easy to just blame people trying to make a profit as the downfall of tools. I am certain that Veritas makes a profit.

If you buy a cheap tool, that is what you get.

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Rick M.

7713 posts in 1801 days

#7 posted 05-05-2015 05:33 PM

I agree to a point but there was plenty of greed back then too, read up on Disston history and you’ll see. There was also plenty of junk, but almost none of it survived which makes it seems like they only made good quality. When looking into the past there is a tendency to remember the good and forget the bad, a Doppler-like effect but with time. It also happen with movies and music, because the really bad stuff never gets aired and we forget about it.


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Steve Peterson

317 posts in 2504 days

#8 posted 05-06-2015 03:59 AM

I think that there probably were good tools and Harbor Freight quality tools made 100 years ago. The “HF” tools made out of soft wood or other cheap material have been thrown away a long time ago. Most of what is left is the high end tools.

The lifespan of a Powermatic tool is much longer than a HF tool.

-- Steve

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17577 posts in 3097 days

#9 posted 05-06-2015 04:37 AM

I think manufacturer’s build to the disposable income level of the masses. It is dropping. Stihl makes an economy saw for those who won’t or can’t afford the real deal. Lately, I have seen advertisements for “E Series” John Deere tractors. Overall, things must be improved. Life expectancy is up from 47 years to 75 ;-)

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View Tim's profile


3032 posts in 1383 days

#10 posted 05-12-2015 12:37 PM

They were great quality tools and didn t cost me an arm and a leg. I was considered middle class. In my first real job, I made $40 a week and I had money to spare to buy tools.

This part is interesting to me because you actually remember buying them and being able to afford them. It’s hard to compare purchasing power and inflation over a long time. A couple factors people forget is how much consumption of everything else has increased since then. The average house size has increased substantially, few people build their own houses with saw and hammer, and most people 60-80 years ago had one or no cars and many walked to work, now almost all couples have two or more. Those two choices alone are huge impacts on disposable income. When people’s expectations of the type and amount of big ticket items they have to have is much higher, their disposable income will be much lower.

On this forum and other forums, I advocate older tools in lieu of brand new tools; not because I m a cheapskate, but because the quality was better. Due to the fact that older tools are still around; proves their durability.
- MrRon

As Steve and Rick said this only proves that those specific tools were quality because they lasted. It forgets about the cheap quality tools that didn’t last because they weren’t. But I agree about looking out for old tools, since many of the high quality old tools are out there and can be had for a song there is no reason not to go look for them if you have the time to learn how to use them and keep them up.

As for the general question I think despite people that focus on the negatives, almost all indicators of economic life are better for more people now than 100 years ago. Poor people now have much better medical care, sanitation, food, entertainment, etc than middle class people had 100 years ago. That’s true for the US at least. In the rest of the world greater percentages of people have decent lives than ever.

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