Thursday, April 28, 2011

Non-conspicuous consumption: lessons from Dad's hand-carved toilet paper spindle

             I shouldn’t brag, but there’s a new toilet paper spindle in my bathroom. 
It’s a large, resplendent, upside-down “G” made of “burnished silver,” with its important product hanging from the big curve.
            We’ve come a long way, baby.
            The new model is part of a slew of matching metal hardware known as “bathroom accessories.”
            Even though we stopped short of buying a hydronic towel warmer (what a deal at $600!) I feel guilty. The old TP dispenser wasn’t even broken. People who shop at the thrift store where we donate wouldn’t want it because it was built into our cabinet. But it seems wasteful to throw it away.
   I blame the guilt on my parents, who grew up during the Depression. My parents didn’t fit into our disposable society.  Like most families, they economized during the Depression, during World War II, and on into the 1990’s. They didn't buy new things just for show.
 Several years ago, while I was visiting Mom and planning a trip to the big-box store, Mom wrote down “toilet paper dispenser.” 
 I asked, “What’s wrong with your old one?”
          She sighed.  “Nothing—I just want a new one.”  That seemed contrary to her usual thriftiness, so in answer to my raised eyebrows, she took me to the bathroom. There hung a version of perhaps the earliest toilet paper holder known to man—two metal brackets hinged to the wall, forming an incomplete square, with an inch-long projection from each bottom corner.  The toilet paper roll was placed on a hollow wooden crosspiece that fit onto the inward-pointing ends, suspending it from the brackets.
          “That roller’s made of wood,” I stuttered.  I didn’t remember growing up with that model.
          “Yes.  About five years before Daddy died, the old one broke, and I asked him to get me one.  Instead, he carved this one.” 
            The carving was nicely done and the wood was smooth. Into each end, he glued part of a bicycle inner tube to “fill out” the hollow inside of the cylinder and to help the toilet paper roll off on command.
          “I bet he said, ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,’ ” I said. 
          “Yes, he did.  He always said that.” She squared her shoulders.  It was hard for her to let go of anything Dad had made. “I’m ready for a new one. He’s been gone ten years now.” 
          “Sure, Mom.” I looked at the bathroom, decorated with contact paper in shades of white and delft blue, her valiant effort to add aesthetics to an old, high-ceilinged and chilly space.  Mom never asked for much.
Within an hour we'd purchased a spring-loaded toilet paper spindle, designed to pop springs, parts and paper all over the room anytime she changed the roll, day or night. (This is called “progress.”)
I kept Dad’s hand-carved spindle as a reminder of how Dad and Mom made things work without spending a dime.
          When I twirl my new spindle, the toilet paper roll spirals across the room.  If I could find the hardware to hang Dad’s spindle, would I?  
          Maybe if it came in burnished silver!


  1. When one of the kiddos accidentally brought this home from your house- I didn't know what it was- but I knew it looked useful and someone had put some time into carving it and I shouldn't just toss it in the trash. After reading this post I'm so glad it got back to you in one piece!

  2. A neat story. And a true commentary on how things have changed.