From Jace Cooke on Flickr

The Obsolescence of Americana

James A. Pearson
May 13, 2013 · 3 min read

It’s lust. That’s what I feel towards a good wood-handled axe. And when Best Made Co. launched their now famous ‘felling axes,’ with their signature painted handles, I lusted.

But I didn’t purchase. Something held me back. The $300 price tag held me back. And the fact that I didn’t have any trees to fell.

And there was something else, something about the price tag and the paint and the calls to the great American mythology in Best Made’s sales pitch. Layered one over another like colors of paint on the axes’ coke-bottle-curved handles, these things didn’t match.

This morning I walked through the little empire of an Armenian immigrant. At 60 he’s built a half-dozen businesses, all thriving under the same expanding roof just north of downtown Los Angeles. “I’ve never lost a client,” he says, his eyes gleaming and sharp. His secret? Be more consistent and less expensive than his competitors.

As a child I imbibed the great American myths: Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, John Henry; the 49ers, the cowboys, the Oregon trail. Looking back, there is plenty to question in these old tales. But as a youngster I found in these myths people to admire. Here are Americans of great courage, and great competence, and great resourcefulness.

These are not stories of genius or riches. They are stories of the uncommonness of common men.

“Tomorrow I’ll show you the truth of American manufacturing,” a friend told me last night. Parked in his 35-year-old Ford truck in the concrete half-hexagonal basin of the Los Angeles River, we were lamenting the rise of planned obsolescence in the American marketplace, the commitment to profits eclipsing the commitment to quality and customer, the tendency of new cars to break more often than his old Ford.

“Los Angeles is one of the last great American manufacturing cities,” he said. “You can make anything here.” He recently partnered with the Armenian man to start a new business, creating products from the reclaimed wooden frames of old homes and warehouses.

As we walked through his workshop this morning my friend pointed out the grain on the edge of a table they were working on. The topographic lines were crisp and tightly packed. “You only get that sort of grain from old growth trees,” he said, “the kind they used 100 years ago.”

Alongside the wood workshop were a cabinet-making business, various jewelry workshops, a tobacco company—each the result of an opportunity happened upon, risked, realized. There was no pretense. The companies, for the most part, simply bear the initials of their immigrant founder. The products are made well and priced for the use of common people.

I would bet that most Best Made axes end up mounted as art in the homes of their buyers, or tucked away in closets. They buy them to connect with American myth, to enter a lost world of simple men and simple tools. But no matter how well they are made, with their $300 painted handles these axes are not heirs to that myth.

The Americans of myth are not extravagant. Paul Bunyan had no need of a $300 axe. And people who buy $300 axes have little need or opportunity to fell their own trees. To consumerize American myth is to betray it.

Years ago a storm toppled a tree in my parents’ front yard. They had its wood sawed into rounds and stacked in their backyard. During a visit I used my dad’s axe to split the rounds down to fireplace size. Halfway through the work the axe’s wooden handle broke. I took it to the hardware store, paid $10 for a new handle, and finished chopping.

James A. Pearson lives, for the most part, out of two black REI duffel bags. He co-founded the humanitarian business Ember Arts and writes from his parallel lives in Uganda and California.

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