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By Rosalie Rayburn / Journal Staff Writer Friday, June 9th, 2017 at 7:30AM
Collecting hobbies come in all forms: “Star Wars” toys, antique snuff boxes, comic books, salt shakers.
Tom Katonak collects insulators — the colorful glass or porcelain devices used on telegraph, telephone and power lines to separate the wires from the pole and prevent electric current from straying places where it could cause harm.
Some look like inverted thimbles, others like mushrooms, still others have odd-looking projections that served to hold wires. The colors run the gamut; deep red, clear or iridescent shades of orange and yellow, cobalt blue, aqua green and a range of purples.
Katonak first stumbled upon a bunch of insulators at a flea market in Colorado Springs in 1983. By the end of the summer he had collected several dozen. He thought he was the only one intrigued by the colorful objects until he found out there was a club for collectors in Denver.
“It just blew me away,” he said.
People all over the world share Katonak’s hobby. Tony Wahl, a native of France who has lived in the United States for decades, said he noticed insulators along the railroad tracks when he was a boy in France. He never thought about collecting them until he spotted one at a garage sale and thought it would make a pretty paper weight. He eventually began collecting as a hobby.
There is a National Insulator Association, clubs all over the United States — including the Enchantment Insulator Club in New Mexico — and regular conventions where fans show off their collections and trade or sell pieces. Rare examples can fetch thousands of dollars.
A booklet published by the National Insulator Association called “What Are Insulators” traces the earliest examples to the 1840s. They were simple glass caps that sat on top of telegraph poles. In 1865, Louis Cauvet, an inventor based in New York, patented a type of insulator with a screw-threaded design that helped keep it on top of the pole.
Since then, hundreds of different shapes and sizes of insulators have been produced to suit varying functions.
Historically they were made of porcelain or glass. Modern insulators are made of polymers or plastic, which makes them lighter and easier for linemen to work with, said Aubrey Johnson, Public Service Company of New Mexico vice president of New Mexico Operations.
Insulator collecting got going as an organized hobby in the early 1960s. According to the Insulator Association booklet “most of the very early collectors were unaware that there were other people all over the country doing the same thing they were doing; gathering these, pretty, shiny, colorful hunks of glass and lining them up in windows and along backyard fences.”
Collectors soon established detailed systems of categorizing the numerous different designs. In 1969, insulator enthusiast Dora Harned of Chico, Calif., launched “Crown Jewels of the Wire” a monthly magazine for collectors. The National Insulator Association was founded in 1973 at a national show in Hutchinson, Kan.
Katonak estimates there are about 10,000 collectors in the United States, based on membership in clubs and the numbers of enthusiasts who attend shows. The majority collect glass insulators, which are more colorful than the plain browns and beiges of the porcelain versions.
Katonak now has more than 2,500 insulators in his collection. The oldest was made in 1849 in Pittsburgh to be used on a telegraph pole.
“Collectors can tell the age and function of the insulator by the style and details or the name of the manufacturer embossed on the glass,” Katonak said.
He said the purplish cast of some insulators is due to the effect of the sun’s ultraviolet rays on manganese dioxide present in the glass. Iron oxide in the glass causes a greenish tint.
Collectors have also coined nicknames for some of the more distinctive designs. An insulator with rounded protrusions like big ears is called a “Mickey Mouse.”
Glass manufacturers like Hemingray of Muncie, Ind., or Brookfield in Brooklyn, N.Y., typically produced insulators as a sideline to other products like beer and liquor bottles.
Sometimes the manufacturing processes overlapped. Recycled bottles were often thrown into a melting tank and the resulting glass used to make insulators. Insulators made from beer bottle glass may be a vivid green or have amber swirls.
“The more different colors and swirls, the more valued they are by collectors, because they’re different,” said Katonak.
Insulator fans in New Mexico will have a chance to see a variety of collections, swap items and talk about their passion this fall at the Annual Insulator, Bottle, Barbwire and Collectibles Show and Sale on Sept. 30 at the Elite Sports Academy, 501 Main St. NW in Albuquerque. There is also a national insulator show July 21-23 in Colorado Springs.
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