Insulators: Gems of history

July 2015 Posted in Arts, Culture & History
David Campbell is organizing an antique glass insulator swap event.

David Campbell is organizing an antique glass insulator swap event.

By Kristine Thomas 

David Campbell, 72, doesn’t know why he began collecting antique glass insulators.

He discovered the colorful glassworks when he was a young man working as a journeyman in California in the early 1960s. His job was to climb power poles and remove the old insulators and replace them with the new technology.

“For some reason, I would take them home in my lunch box at the end of the day,” he said. “My colleagues knew I was collecting them and would give ones they took down to me.”

Describing her husband as an “encyclopedia of information on insulators,” Rebecca Campbell said David enjoys sharing what he knows with others.

David is hosting an Insulator Swap & Sell Saturday, Aug. 1, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Coolidge – McClaine Park.

Glass insulators were first made in the 1850s to be used for telegraph lines, David said, adding during the Civil War, lines were strung on poles and the glass insulators protected the wire from burning the poles. With the utilization of electricity and the telephone, insulators were needed on power, telephone and railroad lines. As the advances in technology continued and wires began to be buried in the ground, glass insulators became obsolete.

Collecting them just to because he liked them, it wasn’t until he visited an antique shop and found a book on insulators that he realized other people collected them and that they were worth something. People began collecting antique glass insulators in the 1960s. David recalls going to the first insulator swap meet in 1965 and the first national meet in 1970 in San Diego, Calif. An international organization of collectors of insulators, the National Insulator Association, began in 1973.

At the time people were taking up the hobby, David sold 3,500 insulators so he could purchase Washboard Willie’s tavern in Spokane, Wash., in 1974.

insulators02“I still kept some,” he said.

Rebecca said when she started dating David in 1983, she knew about the insulators and the quest to find them whether it was a dig, a swap meet or antique shop.

“He jokes he wishes he were younger because he would like to go scuba diving looking for insulators buried in the Columbia River,” she said. “When they built the dam, they flooded old railroad lines with glass insulators.”

Even when they travel to other states or foreign countries, David is on the lookout for insulators.

The clues to what the insulator was once used for is determined by its color, shape and size. The insulators have names such as frog eyes, beehive, pilgrim’s hat, hockey puck, corkscrew and Mickey Mouse. They can range in value from 25 cents to $20,000, David said.

Howard Banks is the editor and publisher of Crown Jewels of the Wire magazine in Lostine, Ore. Banks said he once witnessed an insulator sold in a private sale for $65,000.

“I think what makes insulators interesting to collectors is they are history you can hold in your hands,” Banks said. “Insulators made it possible to send a telegraph about the death of President Lincoln or the news of the wars.”

Banks estimates there are between 4,000 to 5,000 collectors. His monthly magazine has 1,100 subscribers.

Rebecca said she thinks David is attracted to collecting because of the history.

“David loves old things,” she said. “He loves learning the history of what went before us. Insulators are pieces of pioneer technology that is gone now.”

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