You’ve seen them. What are they? Well, back in the day, they were installed high upon the cross-arms of wooden utility poles. They’re insulators. As my public service, I’ll share a little bit about insulators, so that, if you put some in your place, you’ll be able to tell people what they are. And no, I wouldn’t bring up the subject at a cocktail party. Unless you see me there.
These glass (and porcelain) insulators were used by the telegraph, electric power, and telephone industries. They were made by art glass companies. The same companies that made beautiful objects of decoration, and useful objects such as pitchers, drinking glasses and tableware, were contracted to produce glass insulators. Here are two examples of art glass:
Due to conductivity issues, you don’t want to just nail a wire to a wooden pole. You need something between the pole and the wire. That’s where these “crown jewels of the wire” came into play.
Many people, including me, collect them for their beauty. We also collect them simply because they’re interesting objects. I’ve never climbed a telephone pole to string wire; I’ve never gone “searching for an overload”, like the Witchita Lineman; but I think glass and porcelain insulators are really special.
Insulators can be found in many colors. But there is no color coding involved. Basically, the colors don’t mean anything. I think it’s great that they come in colors, for no reason at all. — Well, there is one reason: since glass houses made both glassware and insulators, they would use the leftover glass from their art glass-making process to produce insulators. Which does account for some insulators’ exotic colors.
They were made in many different styles, depending on what kind of wire they went with, and how the wire went around/through them. Many different companies made them. I don’t collect any certain company’s product. I’m not a nerd about it. I just like having pretty, unique things in my décor.
I don’t know much about the porcelain type of insulators. I only own two. Most of the ones I see come in basic brown; and I’m looking for something different. (Last September, I passed up a chance to buy some beautiful off-white porcelain ones at a Puyallup, WA antique mall. I don’t live near Puyallup; I am still kicking myself.) I did manage to learn that porcelain insulators were introduced because the protective properties of porcelain proved superior to glass. But I don’t know what that means! I’m an art collector, not an electrical engineer. But glass ones, which were first made in the 1800’s, for telegraph poles, were eventually phased out — by the 1970’s — making them rare. Porcelain insulators are still being made. For the beginning collector, porcelain can be more affordable.
You may have seen some of these insulators in an old man’s garage. But take them out of the garage, dust them off, put them in an out-of-context spot in your abode, and you have an attractive conversation piece. I can’t show you a photo of one of my insulators against a minimalist, industrial-design background, because I collect hundreds if not thousands of vintage items. I’m not into minimalist, industrial design. But if you have that kind of décor, insulators would go nicely with it. — I believe the #1 way to employ them in a modern interior is to convert them into pendant lights. This is becoming quite common. Turn one into a pendant light, and its value can go way up (unless you do that to a very rare example — those should be left as-found).
These are displayed on my beacon blanket which I’ve had since 1952. You can see how I’m into the true vintage feel.
Where to find them: antique malls, flea markets, auctions, second-hand stores, garage sales. Isn’t that where you find anything cool?
If I see a one I like, and I can afford it, I buy it. I’ll buy an imperfect one (cracked/chipped) if the price is right, and it’s pretty. As with all of my collections, I’ll rescue a damaged item, in order to give it a home. You can expect to pay $3-5 for simple, generic insulators (clear or aqua); the prices go up from there. The most I ever paid for one was $15. It was the purple beauty seen in the photo #6, above, that I found twenty years ago at a Seattle second-hand store known as J T’s Attic. It remains the only purple one I’ve seen in person. I’m so glad I bought it. (Oh, BTW, I want to stick this in here so that I don’t forget: prices will be higher in Portland, Oregon.)
How I got into collecting: I started collecting insulators in the late 1980’s. While “antiquing”, I would see them sitting on the shelves. For something so pretty, and interesting, they were always priced reasonably. I started picking them up. I slowly amassed a small collection. I’d say most of mine are from the 1920’s-1950’s. — One day when my wife and I went to a local auction, I noticed that a whole box of them had been placed in the auction. I took a good look at them at the auction preview, found them to be in great condition; and later that day, I picked them up for a song! The auctioneer, after hitting the gavel, said, “Nice buy!” Well, she didn’t usually make comments. So I will take her word for it. — I got a nice buy! That purchase really bulked-up my collection.
This modern-day utility pole is outfitted with modern-day insulators. The old glass ones are for collectors and repurposers, now. — It looks to me like they’re using a variation of the porcelain or ceramic ones here.
I can’t help but wonder how long telephone poles/wires will last? I can’t imagine anyone having a land line ten years from now. I recall visiting with a young friend back in 2002 or so. He told me he only had a cellphone. I thought how odd that was. Now, of course, I only have a cellphone. This has been the case for five years…. I’d love to see all of those poles and wires gone. I’m a photographer; I’ve had more photos ruined by wires.
I looked it up; basically, we still have telephone poles for economic reasons. Electric companies use the wires to deliver electricity to our homes and businesses. It’s very expensive to bury the wires. — Although, that’s being done more often. I think the poles will eventually go. We’ll have to collect photos of telephone poles….
Update: My friend Gray, who lives in London, dug these up there about twenty years ago, and recently shipped them to me, as a gift. They’re porcelain, and very different from anything else in my collection, so I thought I should add them to my story.
There’s only one song which can accompany this story:
I took all of the photos for this story, except the one of the ruby glass toothpick holder. And, then, my camera broke!
Here are three websites you can explore, if you really want to nerd-out on the subject:
Crown Jewels Of The Wire: http://www.cjow.com
Glass Bottle Marks: http://www.glassbottlemarks.com/glass-insulator-manufacturers/
I leave you with one more photo, because I’m such a nice guy: