The American made Boston Ranger 55 of the past is almost legendary. A quick glance on eBay helps to confirm this. At the time of writing this blog entry there aren’t too many completed auctions to sift through but enough to give us a feel. Used units can run as high as $30, which can be equal to or more than what the new X-Acto version of this sharpener retails for. New-old-stock units could run as high as $80 which is significant. There are lots of other “old” things on eBay, especially “old” pencil sharpeners and they don’t reach these prices. Why? Because nobody wants them. But, for some reason, people want these Ranger 55 units!
Perhaps it’s just nostalgia. I think a large majority of people used one of these sharpeners during their school years. Sharpening a pencil was an excuse for a break and a good reason to get up. We put the dull old pencil in the sharpener and after a few cranks we get a shiny new one (although it’s a bit shorter than before). The process of creating a tip and molding something sharp was satisfying back then and the memory of it today even more so when we consider just how virtual and digital our world is. I think people are hungering for something physical and mechanical today.
We could also consider that the sharpener was a prominent symbol of American power. Think of it this way. A large part of America was developed after WWII by some very hard working intelligent people who had brilliant ideas. With a pencil, a piece of paper (or two.. or three), and a sharpener great people with even greater minds designed transistors, aircraft, automobiles, and homes. Yes, a majority of that was done with a pencil writing on paper with a sharpener of some sort near by. There was no computer or fancy Texas Instruments electronic calculator. Once production of the basic tools like pencils, paper, and sharpeners went off-shore it was sort of like the original American spirit went with them. Sure, we have computers, tablets, and fancy monitors but a lot of times the new instruments add a layer of isolation between the designer and the product. You may know something but do you feel it?
We live in a much more global environment today. Materials come from one place to be transformed into something else at another place. That newly transformed material goes to a second place where something is added. The process continues and pretty soon you have a global product but you don’t know where it came from, who built it, and to what standard. China is probably the only country in the world who can still build something from raw materials to finished product. That capability is what gives China it’s symbol of strength and what many economists fear.
Lastly, the design of the sharpener makes it a classic. The sharpener is big, heavy, and made almost entirely of metal. It’s sole plastic component is the crank handle grip and I’m sure that using plastic back then was “cool” and “high tech” compared to the “old” wooden handle grips. The shapes, contours, and lines that make up the Ranger 55 are all very smooth and pleasing. There are no rough edges. Everything is beveled and rounded. Nothing sticks out funny. Nor does anything rattle and shake other than the collection can so it can be removed for emptying. In some ways, I think it is was an iPad or iPhone of it’s time. It meant to be a beautiful, functional, and durable product. This design was meant to change the way you looked at a manual pencil sharpener. Compare that to today’s expectation where we know that people get bored with things and throw them away. After a two year cell phone contract, the provider expects you to upgrade to something new. Clothes are flimsy because designers know that you’ll toss today’s fashions for next years new colors. Computers need to be cycled through regularly to keep pace with the ever increasing complexity of new software. Probably the only thing you can keep for 10+ years is a car most people trade up (or down) within 5 to 7 years. Our life is disposable today. The only thing disposable about this sharpener is the pencil dust.