Southern Living’s Steve Bender likes to keep things simple. Franky, I was surprised to learn he even had a collection. When I think about Steve, known to his friends as His Excellency, the Grumpy Gardener, I think of a man who likes an effortless life. Steve is most happy with a beer and a ballgame (that would be football, if anyone really cares.) Scouring internet sites for antique glass insulators was about the last thing I would have imagined. But isn’t that one of the really interesting things about people? They can fool you.
Glass insulators were made to insulate the electrical wires at the crossarms of telephone poles. Without them, electricity would leak, draining straight through the pole and into the ground. Insulators were first manufactured around 1850 when the first telegraph and telephone circuits were installed, and continued on until they were obsolete. Today they are collectables by, surprisingly, a large number of men, including Steve Manly-Man Bender.
I interrupted Steve’s internet searching to ask how he got started collecting glass insulators:
I always thought insulators were kind of cool, but it was that same insulator tree you saw in a Dallas garden that opened my eyes to the possibilities. My first insulator was a clear Whitall Tatum #1 that I bought in an antiques store in Berkeley Springs, WVA about a year ago. Since then, my collection has grown to about 35 of all different colors, models, shapes, and sizes. I display them on the railings of my screened porch where the natural light can flow through them. I have very strict rules about what I’ll buy. Every insulator has to be authentic and used. Special editions and reproductions that never saw a telephone or telegraph pole are of no interest. Don’t mind small nicks or rub marks. That just gives them character. Similarly, every insulator must be its original, natural color. No weird stained, painted, or irradiated insulators for me. That’s like drinking light beer.
Three things fascinate me about insulators. First is their history. Telephone and telegraph companies all over the country, most of them small and now defunct, made insulators for their lines. Owning an antique insulator dated 1893 is owning a piece of history. Second is the fascinating array of shapes, sizes, and colors, all manufactured to serve specific purposes. Third is how they look in the light. They’re beautiful. A small aqua-colored insulator with a hole through it used for a short-wave radio antenna has interior facets that sparkle in the sun like a diamond. A light yellow one looks clear in bright light, but changes to gold and peach as the afternoon light fades. Everyone’s favorites seem to be my purple Whitall Tatums. They were originally clear, but over the years UV radiation turned them this color. Purple insulators are expensive and hard to get, so you have to be patient. I paid less than half of what most sell for.
Judy has been remarkably tolerant about my addiction. I tell her, “You collect shoes. I collect insulators. And insulators are lots cheaper.”
Steve Bender grew up in Lutherville, MD and was exiled to Alabama in 1983 for reasons that remain secret to this day. He loves fried okra and often selects dinner wine based on whether it goes well with fried okra. His mission is to make gardening uplifting, accessible, and inspirational to all. He will no doubt succeed. Follow him on Twitter: @grumpy-gardener. Also on Facebook: facebook.com/SLGrumpyGardener.