One of my most cherished childhood memories is the time I spent with my grandparents in the summers on the shore of Lake Huron in Michigan at the hotel/motel complex that grandpa had built from the ground up. Grandpa was the kind of person who never considered throwing things away if they were broken. He understood that with a little hard work and ingenuity he could make pretty much make anything work the way it was supposed to. What strikes me as interesting is that grandpa wasn’t unique in his ability to fix things. In his time, that was just what people did.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, during the early 20th century we went through a “value engineering” process during which we exchanged high quality for low cost when manufacturing things replaced making things. On the surface this appears to most of us to have been a good deal. Instead of having to maintain the things we owned, we could just use them up, toss them in the trash and replace them with the latest greatest version of them. What we didn’t understand was that we were throwing away more than a worn out piece of junk.
In the world that grandpa lived in, people fixed things because they were worth fixing, but they also fixed them because they knew how. When we stopped making things that were worth fixing, we stopped needing to know how, but the need for that knowledge didn’t disappear entirely because so much of what we made then still exists now.
Hence the problem of taking care of our inheritance. On so many levels, the loss of Mr. Fixit has created a snowball effect in the glut of manufactured products in our society. Today most people believe the loss of our hand-made heritage is inevitable.
Look at the major impact that “replacement” windows have had on our historic architecture. Today more people than ever are realizing the travesty this product has created, but few people realize that what we lost before we started throwing out our old hand-made windows was the knowledge it takes to repair them.
In effect, we went through a depression of understanding the importance of the skills needed to fix things prior to understanding how important those skills are, and unfortunately we never even realized it was happening. Now we are faced with more than the challenge of how to deal with maintaining our built heritage; we are faced with the challenge of remembering how it’s done.
I'm sure that part of why I enjoy fixing things as much as I do is the fact that I spent my summers helping grandpa fix things and sharing his satisfaction in being able to. I don’t think many of us think about how much that type of experience influenced our own lives often enough, let alone realize how unfortunate young people in recent generations are for not having had access to it. If their parents didn’t maintain things that they owned, then they would not see the value in doing so either. In fact, they probably wouldn't even have a reason to believe there could be any value in it.
Conservation is about people first and the things people value second. It makes no difference how much something might be worth, or even if it is something that was built so it could be maintained, if people see no value in maintaining it. In a world where people who know how to fix things either don’t exist, or aren’t appreciated for their ability to do so, the value structure is skewed toward replacing rather than repairing, and, unfortunately, the cycle is self regenerating. Unless we can begin to influence current and future generations to understand the value in knowing how to fix things, conservation is an exercise in frustration.
I used to wonder how it is that “historical societies” came to be until I realized that they are the sanctuary of the handful of people who understand how important it is that we conserve our heritage and have little or no idea how to do it. Basically they have a compulsion to save what can be saved, but they become over focused on the artifacts and can’t even see the gap in understanding that exists in the world we live in as to how those artifacts came to be, let alone how to take care of them. Their solution isn’t about preserving the knowledge; it’s about preserving the stuff that knowledge built by putting it in a museum.
I have no interest in turning back the clock to a time when everything was made by hand and people worked from dawn to dusk to feed their families, but I do think that we would all be better off if there were a few more Mr. Fixits around and people realized just how important they are. I still believe there’s a tradesperson in all of us, and if we lived in a world where that tradesperson was someone we appreciated and our children looked up to, more of us would be inclined to nurture and value the knowledge that was once commonplace and was the foundation on which our heritage was built and maintained.