Hog Oilers Were Cheap Insurance
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Those scouting oilers should expect to find incomplete units. “Tanks are often gone and other parts will be missing or broken,” Louise says. “Iron gets brittle with age, and some of these were not well built in the first place. If they’ve been left out in the winter, they’re probably going to be cracked.” Oilers are most prevalent in what the couple identifies as “the hog belt” of Illinois and Iowa, followed by eastern Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri.
Many oilers were swept up in war-era scrap drives, and farms with scrap heaps are few and far behind, Bob says. A good tip for new collectors: “Talk to people who sell farm iron and tell them what you’re interested in,” he says.
Digging for clues
With the singular focus of police detectives, Bob and Louise put as much time and energy into researching hog oilers as some people put into tracing their family roots. They are experienced patent sleuths, and have visited historical societies, agricultural libraries and sleepy small towns once home to a manufacturer.
“We’ve dropped in on people out of the blue,” Louise says. “Sometimes they were surprised to learn that their grandpa had been a manufacturer or an inventor. In some cases we’ve had phenomenal luck; other times we’ve had no luck at all. But we like to travel, go someplace new, and it’s always fun to see other collectors.”
The couple’s research has turned up about 200 unique patents for hog oilers (as well as cases of patent infringement). “We’ve seen some real zingers,” Louise says. The earliest dates to 1902 but the devices didn’t really take off until 1912, Bob says. “We refer, tongue in cheek, to 1912-18 as ‘the golden age’ for hog oilers,” he says. Most oilers manufactured in that era were made of cast iron. After 1920, oilers increasingly featured steel, sheet metal, cables and chain construction, and they were modified for use on other livestock.
Some of the companies that produced medicated oil also sold oilers. Initially expensive, oilers became increasingly affordable; ultimately they were offered as a premium to oil buyers.
Erasing the years
Bob and Louise have restored many of their oilers, but it’s still easy for Louise to imagine them in their element, covered with crankcase oil and mud. They’ve seen a few in original, unused condition – but not many. When they restore, they avoid body putty and similar finishes, opting not to over-restore. They use glass bead-blast (less corrosive, Bob says, than sand), Rust-Oleum and One-Shot sign painter’s enamel.
Restoration is a personal choice, Bob says. “I don’t think it affects values either way,” he says. “Most of our oilers were bought unpainted or with old paint.” Today, their restored pieces show a few chips and dings, the result of life on the show circuit. But Bob and Louise are not overly concerned: The couple is more interested in sharing their collection than in hiding it in a climate-controlled environment. Their oilers, for instance, have been featured in displays at two regional art galleries.