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All The Forks That We Need

eternalfork.jpgCarol and I have been married now for 33 years. Back in the summer of 1976 my mother threw us a bridal shower, and among the many gifts we received were two sets of Ecko Eterna Corsair stainless steel flatware, for a total of eight place settings. We still have them. In fact, we have been eating with them for all 33 of those years. (At left is a 33-year-old daily-driver fork. “Eterna” is fersure. ) They’re all still in the drawer.

Well, almost all of them. Flatware eventually goes missing, like protons, though with a much shorter half-life. Over the years a couple of spoons and forks have probably followed us to potlucks and never come home. I have no better explanation. When I was a toddler I used to drop flatware down the cold air return, which I know because when I was 14 I helped my father tear out the old sheet-metal octopus that heated our house, and found most of a place setting at the bottom of the big pipe. As an adult I have no such excuse. I only know that we run out of clean forks before we run out of clean tablespoons.

I got irritated enough recently by our fork shortage to look on eBay, where I scored three Ecko Corsair forks for $10–and five spoons for $12. The forks were unused, and when I got them, washed them, and dropped them in the drawer, it struck me that there wasn’t much difference in appearance between the brand-new Corsair forks and the forks that have been faithfully stabbing our steaks for 33 years now. We have a full drawer of flatware again, and all the forks that we need. Better still, if we ever need more, we know where to find them.

I had an insight when the forks arrived that Carol and I are not and will probably never again be in the market for new-build stainless steel flatware. Why should we be? Our set works perfectly, and still looks like new. Spare parts are available, cheap. This isn’t good news…if you make flatware.

And I also wonder if our auto industry is in trouble at least in part because cars are lasting longer and people are trading them in far less often. I got my first car in 1970 when I started college. It was a bare-bones 1968 Chevelle 300, and even at two years old the door panels were growing significant rust spots. By 1974 the body was mostly rot and the engine disintegrating, and rather than pony up for a valve and ring job, I dumped it and bought a brand-new Honda Civic. The Civic lasted until 1982, when its brake cylinders started going out repeatedly. I had a Datsun pickup for a year and decided I didn’t like pickups; I traded it for a 1984 Chrysler minivan, which I owned uneventfully until 1995. That year I traded the old minivan in on the newest version of the same minivan–and we still have it, a little tired but entirely functional. The Toyota 4Runner that we bought in 2001 will flip over 100,000 miles today or tomorrow, and has never given us a lick of trouble. No rust, no wiggles, no funny noises, no problemo nada. I expect to be driving it happily ten years from now.

Draw the curve here. Cars that used to implode after 5 years are now lasting for fifteen or more. Is it any wonder that we don’t need as many cars as we used to? A great many of our economic problems today may stem from simple overcapacity: factories cranking out stuff like it’s 1968, simply because that’s what they’ve always done and the spreadsheeters require it. (Publishing certainly has that problem, though for different reasons.) We are the victims of our own success, in that there is less work than there are workers, because we’re making better forks…and much better cars. We may not need a Big Three for making cars. A Big Two may be sufficient. (I’ll leave the eenie meenie mynie moe part to someone else, thanks.) And if that’s the case, we have to be extremely careful about protectionist economics, because the export market is all that’s left, once Americans have all the forks that they need.


  1. I’ve still got a few pieces of the flatware set my parents had as long as I can remember — from an outfit called Rogers Cutlery, wonder if they’re any relation to Ozzie & Harriet’s sponsors? — and they still look perfectly good. I think that the rest of the set disappeared when Dad sold his 5th wheel trailer. 🙁

    Cars are definitely durable these days, although my family always kept theirs quite a while. I’ve owned two Saturns: a 1996 sedan that lasted 7 years and 225,000 miles (and is still going strong under a new owner), and a 2003 Vue small SUV that currently has 233,000 miles and is showing no signs of stopping. (My mechanic keeps telling me that whenever I’m done with it, he wants first crack at buying it from me — he’s the one who bought the sedan as well.) Before the Saturns, I had a 1989 Ford Ranger pickup that I traded in for the first Saturn, mainly because it was only getting 21-22 mpg and I was starting to do a LOT of driving to call square dances.

    In fact, the only vehicle I’ve owned that hasn’t given me long service was a used pickup — a Chevy S-10 I got in 1985 while I was in college, and which probably suffered from not being serviced as much as it should have.

  2. zeph says:


    Useful insight. It’s a curious problem with perfecting engineering: as a product matures, it becomes something that you no longer need to replace. Nota bene marketers.

    1. Aki says:

      But they’ve got a secret weapon -planned obsolescence.


  3. Tony Kyle says:

    Our flatware is 27+ years old. Not sure if we are missing anything or not. It sees pretty good use, though not daily as we tend to eat out. But tonight it will get used on a Texas Oven Brisket. 🙂

    We tend to pay for for our stuff and expect it to last longer than normal. Thus we don’t have to replace a lot of stuff because it wore out. 😀

  4. Tom R. says:

    I am old enough to remember when cars LOOKED different from one model year to the next!

    Back in the 60’s everybody would go down to the dealers to just look at the new model year cars. With the need for more efficiency and real aerodynamics instead of add on fins and chrome cars began to look more and more the same from model year to model year. The old “car culture” may have been given its death blow by the oil embargo’s of the early 1970’s and the real economic downturn in the middle of the 1970’s (remember that one?).

    You may well be right about cars lasting longer on average, but with care even the old cars would last a good while. I am half way through my 62nd year now and here is a complete list of what I have owned.

    1. 1967 Ford Fairlane XL from 1967 until about 1980. about 200k miles.

    2. 1979 Subaru DL from 1979 until about 1990. Maybe 160,000 miles.

    3. Mazda 323 from 1988 still own and running well at only 120,000 miles.

    4. Nissan Frontier truck 2000 still own running well at only 45,000 miles.

    The relatively low mileage on the last three is because I was fortunate enough to be able to use public transportation for most of may career.

    I am not counting the 2001 Taurus my Dad left to me in 2007 since I did not buy it, and he had to have a full engine replacement with only 9,600 miles on it! It was EVENTUALLY covered by waranty, but was a struggle.

    By the way the old 1967 Fairlane went places that I would not take a Hummer today!

    Finally, Jeff, I think you may be on to something bigger than just cars. I think that the era of conspicuous consumption is about over, or better be, or we are going to have to find a new planet soon.


  5. Tina Leonova says:

    This isn’t the first time the car market has flatlined. Back in the 1920s the car makers instituted annual model year changes to artificially inflate demand. It worked until a few years ago.

    The most telling feature I see on cars is 6 digit odometers, instead of the old 5 digit ones. My 1986 VW Jetta just rolled over 330,000 km and still runs like new. My Mitsubishi L300 van has “only” 130,000 km on it, but I expect to see 400,000 before it needs any work on its bulletproof diesel engine.

  6. Rich, N8UX says:

    Suddenly I’m thinking about things like Ebooks as a replacement to print media. I’m looking askance at the thumb drives on my desk.

    1. Rich, N8UX says:

      Not that I’m against ebooks – I welcome them. I just wonder if my ebook purchases will outlast the books on the bookshelves. I have many that are ~100 yrs old. But then so does Google Books.

      Will recent ebook releases have the same “shelf life”? Amazon and the rest now have the power to make my book go *poof!*.

      1. Carrington Dixon says:

        Kind of depends on whose ebooks you buy. Most of my ebooks are from Project Gutenberg, but I have bought ebooks from Jeff and from Jim Baen. In all cases, I have non-DRM files that I can copy to as many different devices as I wish and can convert to new formats should be current ones become obsolete. (That last might be a chore, but Calibre as a mass-convert option that I have not used but might come in handy in such a case.

        I still like real-paper books, but it certainly is handy to be able to take a library on a trip without having to pack yet another suitcase. Plus, Gitenberg has a lot of good stuff that you can’t easily find on paper, like the works of Talbot Mundy.

      2. Worry less. Media lock-in is generally not an issue. Data format lock in often is–but that’s a separate issue. An EE in the electronic storage business told me that flash memory is one of the most persistent storage technologies that we’ve yet found. Your thumb drives may outlive you. In any event, the oft-heard complaint that we’ll lose data as media becomes obsolete is bogus: We’ll lose data if we choose not to migrate to newer media. I have SF stories and essays that I originally wrote in 1980, on a CP/M system with 8″ floppy drives, now living happily on 8 GB Cruzer Skins almost 30 years later. I’ve always migrated the files that I value to newer media long before the older drives pass into history. Those curves are flattening out, too–I’m still using Word 2000, though I occasionally have to use OpenOffice to translate a .docx file that somebody sends me. DRM is your big adversary in ebook life, and I’ve decided that Kindle won’t get my money, nor will anyone else who limits format interchangeability.

        1. Keith Dick says:

          I was surprised that an engineer says flash memory is good for long-term storage. I have read articles that say the life of data in flash memory is only a few years, since the storage cells slowly leak their charge. I wonder which view is true.

          1. Interesting question. I dug deep in the junk drawer and retrieved my very first thumb drive, a 16 MB (M, not G) Q drive, which I described here on Contra on August 27, 2001. I’m not sure what’s on it, but I know I haven’t used it in seven years or so. And sure enough, neither XP nor Linux will recognize it, suggesting that the storage has gone flat. On the other hand, it was almost the first of its kind, so it may not be completely USB standards-compliant. I have an 8MB CF card that is about as old, and it reads just fine, and has a couple of photos on it from my now-dead Christmas 2000 Canon Elph. So I guess it’s not a simple question, and even the oldest flash media may not be old enough for bitrot to set in. We should revisit the issue every five years or so.

        2. Keith Dick says:

          (Does your blog software only permit three levels of reply? I did not see a Reply link below your reply to mine.)

          Anyway, if that flash drive from 2001 has just lost its memory, rather than being defective or incompatible with your current USB ports, it might be possible to bring it back to life by repartitioning and reformatting it. Either Disk Management in Windows or something like GParted in Linux might be able to do that.

          Before trying that, it would be interesting to see whether something like the Linux ddrescue or some flash drive data recovery software could find anything on the drive.

          You might not have the time or interest to spend on such experiments. I just mention them in case you had not thought of doing them.

  7. Joe Goldthwaite says:

    Don’t any of your people have garbage disposers? Spoons have a secret death wish for garbage disposers. You almost never accidentally grind up a fork or knife but spoons are always hiding in there just waiting for you to hit the switch. We’ve lost quite a few spoons that way. It doesn’t destroy them outright. It just scratches up the end to the point where my wife won’t use them anymore.

    I’ve been married almost 27 years and we’re on our third set of flatware. I don’t think the manufacturers have anything to worry about.

    1. We’ve had garbage disposers since our house in Arizona, but we almost never used them, and mostly considered them a nuisance. If you’re on a septic system (as we were for 14 years) they just add fiber to the tank and shorten the time between cleanouts. I don’t recall ever chewing up a utensil in one, but again, we almost never turned the damned things on at all.

      1. Joe Goldthwaite says:

        I grew up here in Arizona. Actually, I’m a third generation native of the state. I’ve never lived in a house with a septic tank so we never give the extra bulk a thought.

        At one point though, my Dad rigged up a valve on the drain with some extra piping. If you flipped the valve, the drain would run out the back of the house and into a five gallon bucket. He did that because my Mom didn’t like the idea if wasting all that organic matter when it could be composted for the garden. My parents grew up during the depression and didn’t like to waste anything or throw anything away.

        The fact that you used to live here is one of the reasons I follow your blog. I used to subscribe to your magazine back then. One of the stories I still tell people is how you used to put your magazine on the shelves of Computer World just so it would confuse the computer (and the cashier) at checkout. Hilarious.

        I’m glad I found your blog. It’s like finding an old friend.

  8. Henry Law says:

    “Flatware” … I thought I spoke pretty good American but that’s one that I’ve managed to avoid. OTSOTP we call it “cutlery”. Interesting.

    The knives/forks/spoons that we had when we were married (around about the same time as you and Carol) are still in working order, but they’ve gone black in patches and are a bit unsightly. I wonder if it’s tiny amounts of silver from other cutlery. We bought some more, I’m afraid.

    1. I’m guessing that it’s an Americanism, and I think it came out of the need for a more honest term than “silverware” for metal knives, forks, and spoons made out of stainless steel. Over here, I always thought “cutlery” referred to sets of knives, generally stuck in slots in a wooden block to keep them from being too dangerous. Carol and I have real silver from our wedding and almost never use it, though we’ve gotten some mileage out of a set of Coronation Rose silver we inherited when my Aunt Kathleen died in 1999. The stainless has always done the everyday heavy lifting.

  9. […] says that desktop PC sales will drop by 7.6% in 2013. This may well be due to what I call the Silverware Effect: PCs are pretty damned good, aren’t getting better very quickly, and people are keeping them […]

  10. JZ says:

    That Ekco Corsair that you’re using was actually made in Japan. My parents had a set while I was growing up. I’m just now considering buying my own set of the same pattern. Having trouble finding forks, though.

    1. Heh. Could it be that after I posted this entry, everybody who was looking for Ecko Corsair stormed over to eBay and picked it clean?

      There’s some Ekco Corsair Eterna forks over there right now, but they want $10 for a single fork. Crazy business.

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