Sunday, December 15, 2013

Adventures in cataloging

I spent yesterday afternoon down at the museum. The backlog of scrambled files is slowly shrinking and I'm making steady progress on cataloging the collections. The hardest part lately is just keeping my hands warm enough to type: now that we're closed for the season, the thermostat is set at 50. It's a tad chilly in the building. I don't bother turning the heat up at all because I'm not there long enough at a time to make it worth it. I started off planning to spend at least 4 hours at a shot when I go in, the logic being that I might as well make the drive down the hill worth it, and it's devolved to more like 2 to 3. End result? The volume of space is large enough that by the time it would actually be warm in the museum, I'm done for the day.

The last time I went, however, I found something in the collection -- several somethings actually -- that could solve my cold hands problem. Now the only question I have is how did these things work? Did people seriously light something that looks like an oversized cigarette lighter and use it to keep their hands warm? Even more intriguing, do they still do it? After I started typing this, I remembered the wonders of Google and, voila, I discovered a company called Sundance (as in Robert Redford's Sundance) still sells them. They have a "Vintage 1962 Pocket Hand Warmer" for a mere $15. It looks very similar to the one pictured. As for the fuel? Apparently it takes ordinary cigarette lighter fuel and will burn for up to 8 hours.

I'm not sure just what the time period was for the ones the museum owns, but they must have been fairly popular because the museum has about half a dozen of them scattered through various displays. There were three in an exhibit that's otherwise all items relating to smoking (matchbooks, cigar boxes, information on the old cigar factory in Baraga, an art nouveau cigarette case that's so tiny it looks like it was meant to hold candy cigarettes instead of real ones) but no instruction booklets. I have a hunch that whoever set up that display didn't recognize them as hand warmers, although you never know. Maybe she did know and just thought they looked cool. I made a note and one of these days I'll do some serious research and figure out when they first hit the market. It's always good to include a little info with an artifact letting visitors know just what the object is, when it was first used, and if/when it went out of fashion or was discontinued. Most people I know now opt for the chemical hand warmers, probably because they're slightly more convenient (Grabbers makes warmers you can stuff in your boots) so there are bound to be more and more museum visitors who will look at the vintage warmers and have no idea what they are.

That same exhibit includes one item that really highlights how attitudes toward smoking have changed: an ash tray from St. Joseph Hospital in Hancock, Michigan. Can anyone imagine a modern hospital paying to have its name embossed on ash trays? An antique dealer told me a couple years ago that ash trays are going to be a hot item as a collectible in a few years because so many people are throwing them away now. I'm dubious, but you never know.


  1. Lowell and I read this and are wondering if there is an electric heater there? We have one like a radiator that heats fast, on rollers and works like a charm. You can use it over there if you like. Come and get it. I found it awkward to lift. Maybe your SO could give you a hand with it. We are here. Give us a call. Liked your post very much.

  2. I did bring in a small space heater for the office and have it aimed at the work station. I still end up thawing out my hands by either making a cup of tea or going into the utility room and fondling the boiler. The furnace is always a little warm even when just the pilot light is burning.

  3. Actually, those old hand warmers worked pretty damn good but I never took one apart to see just how they did work.

    Interesting that you just did this post when I just posted about a hand warmer I made yesterday with a tall beer can and a tea candle.

  4. As a young man I was stationed in Maine in 1961 and being a hunter and fisherman I loved the posting as it gave me access to the pristine Maine woods. Back in that day LL Beans was just a warehouse opened 24 hours a day.

    I always carried one of these hand-warmers in the woods in the winter and also to the late fall country fairs to watch the oxen pulls.

    You would remove the cover and there was a removable wick - you would disengage the wick and squirt lighter fluid in to soak the cotton batting. Then you would reattach the wick assembly - put a drop of lighter fluid on it and light it. It would flame for less than a minute and then begin to glow. You reattached the metal cover and placed it back into its drawstring bag and put it in your pocket. It would produce warmth for up to six hours. I often rotated one in my glove while deer hunting to keep my fingers warm.
    As you can see these lasted for years, unlike the disposal chemical hand warmers today - they are cheaper to use and less harmful to the environment
    I never heard of anyone injured by one of these hand warmers.

    the Ol'Buzzard

  5. You can still get these. Never used or seen one, though.


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