What's your "favorite" insulator is a question that pops up on ICON from time to time, and always generates some discussion. Most people agree that they really can't single out any one insulator in their collection as "the" favorite, but usually there are a few that do stand out. I guess I'm no exception to this -- I couldn't pick one favorite, but there certainly are a few that rise to the top whenever I think about the question. The "Rogue's Gallery" certainly showcased many of my favorites at the time, but things have changed. The following list contains my current favorites -- I'm sure if you asked me tomorrow, you'd get a slightly different answer. Here's my "Top Ten", complete with why I like them, and usually the story behind them. Usually it's the story that is why I like them so much!
This first one is probably a fairly unremarkable insulator that most people wouldn't look at twice. I'd been looking for one for several years, though, when I found it. I was at the Mid-Ohio 2007 show, walking the aisles for the first time, when I found myself at Steve Bobbs table. Knowing I collected baby signals, he pointed out a table in the far corner that had a bunch of baby signals on it. I thanked him, then headed on over there. There was indeed a nice selection of them, and this was one. I picked it up and never let go! It had actually been found in Texas, on a fire alarm signal line.
The second one is just as unremarkable -- in fact, it's exactly the same insulator with one exception. The added embossing is 180 degrees from the  version. This one I got because the previous owner knew I collected baby signals, and when he re-discovered it in his collection and realized he already had one of these, he checked my want list and realized I didn't have it, and definitely wanted it!
What's so special about these, you might ask? Well, as a baby signal collector, I'm very interested in the different types of embossings that are present, and Hemingray presents an amazing array of variations. From introduction around 1889, all the way through until the very end in the late 1950s, Hemingray was the only manufacturer to continually produce them. The embossing styles range from H.G.Co. in Old Script, Transition, New Script, Prism and Stamped, to Hemingray No 14, Hemingray - 14, introduction of mold and date codes, changes from smooth base to SDP to RDP, and a plethora of errors and blot outs. This particular insulator is a bit of a conundrum -- it bears the HEMINGRAY - 14 embossing style with MADE IN U.S.A. and SDP that indicate it was made sometime around 1919 - 1923. And yet, the mold the insulator was made in also bears the PATENT MAY 2, 1893 date, PETTICOAT, and a blotted out H.G.CO. that was probably last used around 1910 or a little later. The H.G.CO. embossing was superceded by HEMINGRAY NO 14 around 1910-1912 or thereabouts, and the HEMINGRAY NO 14 was changed to HEMINGRAY - 14 around 1919. Why would Hemingray have pulled a 10 year old mold out storage, re-embossed it, and started using it again?
I think I figured out a reasonable explanation for this. While I have no proof, it does seem like a valid hypothesis. In 1919, the explosion at a nearby munitions plant devestated the Brookfield factory. By 1920, manufacturing at Brookfield had ceased, and in 1922 the plant itself was sold. When Brookfield folded, there was still a great demand for insulators. Gayner, Whitall Tatum, and Lynchburg all started production of insulators shortly afterward, specifically to help meet the demand. However, I'm sure that Hemingray, as an existing manufacturer, saw a sudden increase in demand for their insulators. It seems likely that Hemingray had more orders for the CD 160 than they could fill. To fill these orders in the short term while they created more molds, they took a number of old molds out of storage, retooled them, and used them until the new molds were operational.
While this theory may not be true, it does illustrate one of the joys I derive from insulators -- the history behind them, and the search for understanding.
By September of 1981, I had been collecting insulators for a little over a year. I had somehow convinced my best friend, Bill Snell, that insulators were neat and interesting, and we had both started getting Crown Jewels and going to shows. When the McDougald's held a moving sale in Ohio, Bill convinced his father to drive him and me out for the show. My father had given me some money to get something intesting, and I ended up buying a CD 267 that I still have, but my favorite acquisition of the show was this little CD 103. A very nice aqua color, filled with a snowstorm of flakes, and a strong amber streak running horizontally through the skirt, it grabbed my attention and hasn't left my favorites list since.
The first National show I ever went to was in 1986. When I started collecting, I was fascinated by the different shapes, and my current CD collection is an obvious reflection of that continuing love. Most of the oddball shapes were things I had only seen in books, but of all of those, the CD 109 Chicago and the CD 180 Liquid Insulator were the two that I liked the most. This National had a number of great insulators -- including a dead mint CD 135.5 E.R.W. that I still kick myself for not getting -- but when I saw this on a table, I knew there wasn't a choice. This was the most expensive insulator I had ever bought, and it would remain that way for a number of years. This also illustrates one of the other interests I have in insulators -- the patents that cover them. The Fiske & Motte patent is one of the many that cover odd shapes and designs, and they make fascinating reading.
My first real year of collecting insulators, I found the vast majority of the additions to my collection along railroad lines. Some were just lying at the base of poles, others were up on top waiting for someone to climb up and pick them. We were on vacation in Maine, which exposed me to a whole new set of railroads to comb for little glass jewels. We were walking along the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad when I found this one. I had climbed a number of poles already, and then I found this little CD 133 with the 1865 patent date. At the time, I don't think I had a single insulator in my collection that was over 100 years old, so this was quite a find from my point of view. I held it lovingly, then dropped it down to the base of the pole, only to see it shatter into a billion pieces. When I got to the bottom, I couldn't find a single remnant. Mind you, I had done this with dozens of insulators before, and had never had any problems. It wasn't like there were any rocks I hit or anything -- it was just remarkably fragile glass that didn't take the drop too well. I was seriously upset, but that only lasted until I climbed the next pole and discovered this insulator here. I was careful NOT to drop this one, and it survived and is still in my collection today.
This is one of only 3 "big ticket" insulators in my favorites list. My favorites definitely aren't the most expensive -- typically they are the ones that are sentimental favorites for one reason or another. This particular "big ticket" item cost me a grand total of $5, so maybe it shouldn't count? Here's the writeup I posted on ICON when I made the discovery, back in 2003.
I don't know about you, but I've often dreamed about finding something rare and unusual. I had just never really thought it would happen to me.
My in-laws were visiting this weekend, with a pair of shih-tzus, and on Saturday we hopped in the car to go to a craft show. When we got there, we were told that they didn't allow dogs. Undeterred, we hopped back in the car and headed off to visit another craft show. Unfortunately, when we got there, we had the same problem. I had never realized I lived in such a dog-unfriendly place. Since we had some spare time, we decided to check out an antique store that we had seen. After parking and getting out, we headed into the little place.
Now, when I walk into an antique store, insulators are one of the main things that I always look for. It's always amusing to see the Hemingray - 42s priced at $30, and I have occasionally found something a little different. So when I entered the store, I did the usual scan around and immediately spotted a shelf with about 20-30 insulators on it. Even more interesting, there was one right out in front that didn't look like anything I had seen around here before. It looked like one of the No Name Canadian CD 162.4s, in a really dark glass. I checked out the rest of the store, then headed over to the insulators. When I picked up that front piece, my mind went into a bit of a state of shock. I quickly went through the other insulators, and pulled out 3 more to buy. Priced at $24.50 in total -- all I had was $20, which I offered the woman behind the counter. She agreed, then wrote it up and added the tax. I had to scurry out to the car and dig up some change, but I had enough (barely) to get my insulators. So what did I get? Well, one is a CD 154 Whitall Tatum in purple. One is a CD 145 (Dome) A (F-Skirt) B (R-Skirt) B in a light purple. One is a CD 102 (F-Skirt) W. BROOKFIELD (R-Skirt) NEW YORK in light purple. Certainly those three were more than worth the price. But that last remaining piece? When I first picked it up, I didn't see any embossing. And my mind had been screaming all along that it wasn't a CD 162.4 -- it just wasn't right. There was a fair sized chip out of the back of the piece, and when I tipped it up to check more closely, I discovered that the chip took out some of the embossing on the base. Yes -- base embossed! It is a 2-date American -- a CD 160.7 snow cone. But the most amazing thing of all is the color -- an absolutely stunning 7-up green! Even with the damage, this is far and away the best insulator I've ever found like this. And I owe it all to those dogs!
Like the CD 109, the CD 180 Liquid Insulator had long been a favorite shape of mine. I never really thought I'd own one, but I guess dreams do come true occasionally. In 1991, Bill Snell and I had gone to a YPCIC show in Connecticut. We stayed with a friend of ours, Laurie LeDoux, and even managed to get her to come to the show with us (she was a little curious what had dragged the two of us all this way from home, and she certainly got an education). I vividly recall the day after the show, when her grandmother made us breakfast -- blueberry pancakes. I don't like pancakes, and I detest blueberries, but she was a very sweet woman and I managed to eat enough of them to convince her I liked them. But the day before, at the show, I was walking around with Laurie when I saw the Liquid Insulator for sale. It was an astronomical sum of money (well, now-a-days it'd be cheap, but at the time I was 3 years out of college and earning more money than I was used to, so I could splurge). I hemmed and hawed a while -- Bill never had a doubt I'd get it, but Laurie was stunned when I actually did. Along with the CD 109, that meant I had my two favorite insulator shapes! I liked it even more when an article in Crown Jewels explained more of the details of the history behind this piece. I always like knowing the story behind them!
By 2003, my "Integral CD Collection" (that's all the integral CDs, and none of the points) was reaching a point where it was very tough to get a new addition. Everything I needed came up for sale very rarely, and was too expensive when it did. The CD 186 was one of the few remaining shapes I still needed. I had seen it in an auction a few years before, and had been one of the top two bidders on the piece, but finally gave up when the price went way over book value and beyond my means at the moment. Walking around the floor at the 2003 National, I overheard Bill Meier talking with Kevin Lawless, who had just made some comment about a CD 186. I did a double take nearly fast enough to give me whiplash, and went back to talk to him about it. It was a most lovely CD 186, but I really didn't have the money for it -- my first born was just a few months old, we had moved just a few years before and had some significant financial problems carrying two mortgages for a while, and it just wasn't good timing. But Kevin was willing to work a deal out, and I ended up carrying that insulator home with me. I gave Kevin my last payment on that insulator a while later at the Mid-Ohio show, where I also bought a CD 250.2 which would turn out to be the last insulator I got from him. I miss Kevin -- that's another thing that makes insulators great, the people.
In high school, I took French for all 6 years (that's grades 7-12, for those who think high school is only 4 years). In my junior year, the Spanish teacher came into our class and handed out a little blurb about the Association for Teen-Age Diplomats (ATAD), which was an exchange program for students. I was intrigued, and somehow managed to convince my parents that it was a good idea. The next summer saw me off to France for the entire summer. I missed out on the National that took place in my home town, but I think I made out OK. Spending 2 1/2 months in a foreign country with people you don't know is quite an adventure, and I ended up doing all sorts of things I had never done before. One of those was horseback riding. I can't say I was thrilled at the concept -- the idea of being on top of some animal that weighed way more than I did and had a mind of its own was not very reassuring to me. And D'Artagnan (the horse I got to ride) certainly had a mind and wasn't afraid to use it. I could never make him go where I wanted to, but luckily he was good at following others. Somewhere along the way, I noticed that we were following a path alongside some old powerlines, on rickety, rusty iron towers. Now, I had seen a number of nosers and cox-combs, but hadn't managed to get my hands on any of them. So when I saw an insulator that was both rolled into one, I just had to get it. Being on top of a half-ton or so of horse that wasn't going anywhere near that tower didn't lend to doing anything at the moment, but I made a mental note of where we were. Not long afterwards, I borrowed a bicycle and a hacksaw, and made my way back. I spent a few minutes hacking at the pin (French insulators have the regretable habit of being cemented onto their pins, making retrieving them a difficult process most of the time), and eventually the jewel was mine.
When I got back home, I discovered that this insulator was previously unreported in the U.S. Marilyn Albers wanted to see it, and to show it to N.R. "Woody" Woodward to get a new CD assigned. I wasn't thrilled at the idea of mailing my insulator off to Texas, but Dick Bowman was going and he volunteered to hand carry it the distance. As a result, CD 687 was a new assignment for my insulator. I loved it!
I'm not a porcelain collector. I've never particularly liked "mud". In recent years I've acquired a respect for them -- especially after seeing Ken Willick's collection and realizing the historical significance behind them. But back in 1994, I mainly picked them up only if they interested me for some particular reason, and never if I had to actually pay for them. On the other hand, I loved anything and everthing French, so when I was on vacation in France I kept my eyes open for anything obtainable. My then girlfriend Sam had come with me, and we had rented a car and were driving all over the place. When we drove past a set of transmission towers that had been knocked down, I had to stop and see what there was. After stepping out of the car, it was immediately apparent that this had been a fairly high voltage line -- the only insulators were a number of large, brown porcelain insulators. Ugh, one might think -- but these were lily shells, which was a style for which I had acquired a vague liking, and even more interestingly, they were marked with the P.F.C. marking of the Anciens Etablissements Parville Freres et Compagnie which I knew well from their glass insulators. I knew that they had made porcelain insulators, but had never seen one. I knew I had to get these insulators. After checking, I discovered that, yes, they were all cemented onto their pins, and none were budging. I also discovered that the metal pins they were cemented to were enormous. With Sam on the lookout, I produced my trusty hacksaw ("never leave home without it"), and proceeded to saw. And saw. And raise blisters. And saw some more. There was a little old woman on her front porch a couple hundred yards away, rocking back and forth and watching what we were doing. It wasn't particularly comfortable, and certainly became less and less so over time. After about 45 minutes of cursing and moaning, the weight of the insulator finally folded the remaining portion of the pin down, and I was eventually able to cut through the last bit. When we discovered that the old woman had vanished inside, probably not to call the police as our fevered imagination told us, we decided that we'd better finally get out of there. I had abandoned all hope of getting more than the one a long time before succeeding in cutting the pin, so off we went.
The epilogue to that story was the trip home. If you've ever gone overseas, gotten insulators, and brought them back, well, you have some idea of what it takes. In my case, we had flown into London, and had to fly back out the same way. That meant that we drove to Paris, dropped off the rental car, took the subway to the train station, took the train to Dieppe where we got on board the overnight boat that went across the channel. Once in England, we hopped on another train that took us to the airport. From there, we lugged all our stuff to the check in counter, and finally dumped our umpteen suitcases, all stuffed full of glass and porcelain and overweight and getting heavier every time we had to pick them up. Mind you, this P.F.C. multipart was in my carry on, so even then I had to carry it on to the plane with me. Then off the plane, more trains and cars and who knows what else before finally arriving back home. Porcelain high voltage multiparts are HEAVY insulators, and it doesn't help when they have the remnants of the enormous pin still in them. I've never bothered trying to get that out -- I suspect I just don't want to have to pick it up again!
While I was an exchange student in France, I stayed with a very understanding family that had two young boys. One weekend we went picnicking in the mountains, and I had my introduction to French insulators. There, alongside the stream we were at, was a pole, with an absolutely stunning gingerbread boy sitting on a pin within arm's reach. The sun was shining through the trees, and the insulator just glowed. I walked up, wrapped my hand around it, and twisted it off the pin. Well, I tried to. Here's where I discovered that the French like to cement the insulators in place -- no leaving them around for anyone to lightly spin off and walk away with. I left that insulator there regretfully, but not before talking about it with Serge and Francoise, Xavier and Stephane and Isabelle (Isabelle was my exchange "sister", Francoise was her sister, Serge was Francoise's husband, and Xavier and Stephane were their boys). I'm not entirely sure how, but they either knew of, or found, an insulator dump, and actually took me there. I had a blast with Xavier and Stephane, poking through all the insulators and picking out things to take. One of the things I found was a brown porcelain gingerbread man. Unfortunately, it was badly broken, missing most of the skirt in the back. I tossed it aside and didn't think too much more about it.
Until I got home and started figuring things out about French insulators. That particular gingerbread boy didn't have an inner skirt -- which was unknown at the time. But, much more importantly, a BROWN gingerbread was unheard of. Even today, brown porcelain is incredibly unusual in French porcelain. I kicked myself about this a fair amount, and never forgot about it, but there wasn't much I could do. Until five years later when I went back to France. I had kept in touch with Serge and Francoise and Isabelle (I still do, actually), and I went back to pay them a visit. I still had this brown gingerbread man in mind, and I convinced Xavier into taking me back to that dump. When we got there, it was obvious that somebody had been cleaning up. There were no piles of glass, no mounds of twisted metal. Just a bare field. But the ground was littered with broken shards of glass, and I poked around here and there. I eventually stubbed my toe on a piece, and I dug out a brown porcelain gingerbread man. Even more incredibly -- you could tell from the broken skirt that it was the exact piece I had tossed back 5 years before. Needless to say, this time I kept it. I also found a CD 645 there, which I believe was the first "Mama" gingerbread reported.
The Moral of the Story
After writing all this up, it does become somewhat apparent just what makes an insulator one of my favorites. It's not the value or the color or anything particularly intrinsic in the insulator itself -- it's the story behind the insulator. Whether that's the historical context of the insulator, the idea in a patent, or how I acquired it or who I acquired it from, it's the memory of the peoples and places that I value the most.