Bay Reflections

Vol. 9, No. 5
Feb. 1-7, 2001
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From Tinkering to Puttering
A Social Evolution

By Allen Delaney

hat in the world are you doing down there?" was the question that shot me back 30 years to my parents' kitchen where my apron-clad mother would be yelling into the cellar asking my father the same question. His answer was always the same, "Just tinkering," he'd reply. "Well, make sure you put the lid down when you finish," was Mom's matter-of-fact response.

By "tinkering," Dad meant that he was puttering. He would be straightening up his tools or figuring where to place a set of shelves or any other mundane item that could be done in the basement as winter winds howled outside. As an omniscient teenager, I knew that I would never waste my adulthood on something as trivial as puttering around in a basement.

"Tinkering" is derived from the noun "tinker," an individual who mends pots and pans. During the 1800s, thousands of immigrants poured into America armed with the clothes on their backs, 14 relatives, a goat, 17 cents and the indispensable family cook pot.

When not in use for bathing, milking the goat and keeping errant children on the right path, the pot would be cooking the family's daily meal of boiled-water soup and fried soil. If a hole formed in the pot, it was cheaper to have it mended than to buy a new one, so a local tinker would be called, usually by opening the window and yelling, "Hey tinker! Get up here!"

The tinker would begin by making a mud dam and shaping it around the hole. Solder poured into the hole would be held in place by the dam. Once the solder hardened and the hole was patched, the dam would be brushed away, as it was now worthless. This is where the expression "not worth a tinker's dam" originated. Over the years, "tinkering" became synonymous with any sort of repair work, no matter how futile.

In today's wealthy, efficient society, if a pot handle doesn't match the kitchen curtains, the old one is tossed out and a new one, with color-coordinated handle, is purchased from the local Mart store, thus putting the tinker out of business. Thus the word 'tinkering' diminished to be replaced by the more modern version, "puttering".

"Putter" is defined as "to act aimlessly." In no way does this describe a man's ability to waste an afternoon performing subterranean activities on a dreary winter day. For a more realistic theory as to how the word "puttering" came about, I look to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

While the rest of society frittered away their time trying to stay warm, the well-to-do man of the house would retire to the basement and practice hitting golf balls into empty coffee cans. When company called, the lady of the house would inform them that her husband was in the cellar "hitting those little balls with those silly clubs. He calls it 'pudding' or 'puttering' or something like that.

"Henry!" she would then call. "We have company!" The sudden interruption would cause Henry to miss an easy chip shot from behind the coal pile, forcing him to wrap his silly little club around the furnace and let forth a volcanic eruption that melted snow within a three-block radius.

As the Depression lifted, middle-class America discovered the joy of golf only to become restless during the winter months. Soon, every Sunday afternoon from December through February, wives throughout the country would find their husbands down in the basement practicing their "puttering," much to the delight of golf club salesmen and furnace manufacturers. Like tinkering, puttering soon became associated with wasting time.

So, on a dismal winter afternoon, I found myself in the basement doing what I had promised as a teenager I would never do as an adult. I was happily re-arranging empty paint cans, sorting rusty bent nails from not-so-rusty bent nails and contemplating exactly where to put up a set of shelves. I was puttering and enjoying every moment. It was Zen-like, puttering. Very calming and satisfying.

My wife called down a second time, "Are you down there? What are you doing?"

I remembered what Dad used to say.

"Tinkering." I called back.

"Well, please put the lid down when you're done."

I think I'll stick with puttering.

Occasional contributor Delaney lives in Huntingtown, where he putters with words and wit as well as rusty nails.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly