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The Plumber's Dream

An artifact like the Ridge Tool calender couldn't possibly have survived years of gender wars and political correctness. Could it?



Bought a pipe wrench the other day. The wife was going to call the plumber. "I'm calling the plumber," she said. But I said no. It wasn't just the money. I knew what the problem was--screws, tossed down the bathroom sink drain by our three-year-old. I knew where the screws were--the U-trap, that curved pipe under the sink. All I had to do was remove it and take out those screws before they--did something bad. Even I could do that.

Almost didn't buy the right tool, however. After strolling with the three-year-old to the hardware store--behold your handiwork, o my child, the heartbreak you have wrought--I almost bought an expandable pliers. Figured that would do the job, would remove the pipe, and be more useful later for other things. For holding hot rivets, say.

But I had second thoughts. A phrase, "the right tool for the right job," bubbled up from somewhere. From the lips of some long-dead shop teacher probably. So I bought a 14-inch pipe fitter's wrench.

The pipe wrench--and this will seem ridiculous to those who spend significant time around pipe wrenches--struck me as a wondrous object. Big, heavy, solid. I held the wrench in my hand--all the weight at one end, where the adjustable steel teeth are--and wanted to bash somebody in the head with it, just on general principles. I felt happy, safe.


The wrench was a bright safety orange, meant to be spotted easily through a foot of dirty water on the floor of a flooded basement. There, molded into the cast-iron handle, one side said, "The Ridge Tool Co. Elyria Ohio U.S.A.," and the other, "RIDGID--HEAVY DUTY--14"."

Of course I thought of the calendar. Didn't you? Ridge Tool used to be famous for its girlie calendars, weirdly juxtaposing bathing beauties--as they were once called--with large industrial tools. Wrenches as big as French bread, orbital saws like fireplace logs.

Every welding shop and auto garage my father dragged me into had one. Behind the counter, on drab fake wood paneling--or grimy cinder block, or faded wallpaper--a shock of color, a bright new photograph of a fresh young woman, smiling mightily, holding a giant screwdriver, a power pipe cutter. To me, they were an early hint of the entire world of masculinity waiting out there, a world filled with puzzling combinations and odd pairings. Pretty women and plumbing tools.

They must have gotten rid of those calendars years ago, I thought, already nostalgic. Mustn't they? How many articles have I read about lawsuits arising from a cheesecake photo in somebody's locker? An artifact like the Ridge Tool calendar couldn't have survived the years of gender wars and political correctness. A few letters to the international conglomerate now controlling Ridge Tool, the threat of a march, and the wrenches would be photographed next to kitty cats or potted ferns.

Not at all.

"They're still here, as archaic as they sound," said Fred Pond, senior vice president of marketing and planning at Ridge Tool, the 75-year-old manufacturer of the Ridgid line. "The reality is that many of our customers still look forward to their Ridgid tool calendars. It is a tradition that will be difficult in dying."

Pond said the company prints more than half a million calendars and ships them to 140 nations. A lot of calendars end up around here. "In Chicago there is a large number of Ridgid tool distributors," he said.

I would think so. One of them is the Allan J. Coleman Company on North Ravenswood. I phoned, and the owner's daughter, Alison Frank, who is also the office manager, picked up. She loves the calendars.

"They're great," she said. "Everybody loves them. We give them to all of our customers and they all love them. They'll come in just for the calendars. I have one hanging in my bedroom at home."

I asked her whether she ever gets complaints about the calendars--the objectification of women, demeaning sexism, blah blah blah.

"They're not offensive to anybody, by my standards," said Frank, 23. "They're a calendar mixed with a sales pitch."

She said that the Coleman Company has gotten new clients just by giving away the calendar. "We gave one to the grammar school I used to go to," she said, and it started buying its plumbing supplies at Coleman. Anshe Emet Day School, drawn in by a girlie calendar. Who would have guessed?

Pond said the company is proud of its calendar, which has even launched the careers of actresses, most notably Raquel Welch.

"It's nothing we're embarrassed about," he said. "It is tame by today's standards. There are people who are very proud of their collections--we get literally hundreds of requests [for calendars] a week."

There was a moment when the calendar was in peril, but the moment passed.

"In the mid-1970s, we certainly had some people that questioned the calendar," Pond said. "While you and I may not hang one up in an office environment, certainly many small companies are proud to do so."

"Proud" might be overstating the case. I had a devil of a time finding a working plumber who would own up to having one. The plumber I did find stressed the attractiveness of the tools.

"The best you can buy, in my business. There isn't anyone better," said J.R. Jespersen, a north-side plumber, noting that the models on the calendar are "pretty well dressed up."

To judge for myself, I had the company send a calendar. Frankly, it was a disappointment. The models were pretty enough, each spilling out of an identically skimpy bathing suit, a style I immediately dubbed, in my mind, "the Plumber's Dream."

But the power tools were no longer held by the models. Rather they were superimposed over a corner, the Ridgid Heavy Duty Pipe Wrench in Jennifer Wood's photograph awkwardly cantilevering out of her knee, as if suspended in air.

The front of the calendar had a spread of historic calendars. You could trace from the original orange 1935 calendar that naively featured the tools, through the various Vargas-like paintings of tiny women straddling and fondling tools that are larger than themselves, to--during the years when I was growing up--photos of women actually posing with tools in hand. Those are the shots with the endearing cheesiness I so fondly remembered. Miss November/December 1968 kneeling in a witch's hat (in honor of Halloween, the previous month?) on a scattering of straw, a pipe threader resting against her thigh.

The change came in the early 1990s. Miss November/December 1990 actually holds the tool, leaning against a carousel horse. But two years later the model is not actually joined in the splashing surf by the piece of pipe-draining equipment.

I suppose you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to see why a guy would prefer the women to be holding the tools, so I don't think I'll go down that road. I had argued with my wife about putting up the calendar during the day of thrill and expectation that passed before it arrived. She was adamantly against it--was worried about the adverse effect it could have on our boys. Now it isn't a problem. The calendar goes straight into the garbage. They left the wrenches and sectional drain cleaners at home and posed the women toolless. What's next? The Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, all posed under harsh fluorescent lights in a Time Warner conference room to save on airfare? Another dream dashed by downsizing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): calendars.

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