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Collectors Gather : So What's a Reamer? One Juicy Hobby

August 08, 1987|ERIC MATTSON | Times Staff Writer

Debbie Gillham remembers when she tried out to be a game show contestant in Los Angeles a few years ago and was asked if she had any hobbies. "I said I collect rare and unusual reamers, and I got a standing ovation from all the men in the room," she said.

Gillham didn't make it onto the game show, but she continued to collect reamers, the funny-sounding devices commonly known as juicers or orange juice squeezers. Gillham and dozens of other reamer collectors are in San Diego this weekend for the annual convention of the 7-year-old National Reamer Collectors Assn.

Gillham started collecting reamers in 1982, when she received one as a gift. After that, "I was hooked. It's like popcorn--you can't stop," she said.

High in Appreciation

She has since accumulated some 250 reamers, worth more than of $5,000, and she may buy some more today when the convention opens its reamers for display and sale to the public.

"They're probably the fastest-growing collectible, and they appreciate in value more than any other collectible right now," said Ed Walker of Los Angeles, who organized this year's convention. Walker and his wife, one of the founders of the reamer collectors association, own more than 1,300 reamers--down from 2,000 a few years ago.

The reamers that will be on sale at the Stardust Hotel today from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. range in price from $10 to $700. Other decorative reamers with even higher values will be on display.

The devices first came into vogue in the early 18th Century for squeezing the juice from lemons to complement food and drinks. Later, during the Gold Rush in California, each bartender had his own lemon squeezer--the fancier the bar, the fancier the lemon squeezer.

"This is California history," Walker said, brandishing a heavy early-model reamer. "These were lemon squeezers, and they were also enforcers." The bartenders would use the reamers to knock unruly customers into submission.

Until the early 20th century, it was unusual for Americans to drink orange juice, and reamers were used mainly to squeeze juice out of lemons for drinks or garnishes. Drinking orange juice "just wasn't a major thing," said Barbara C. Robison, the manager of consumer services for Sunkist Growers.

But in the 1920s, when Sunkist was trying to increase consumption of citrus fruits, the company began pushing its "Drink an Orange" campaign to promote the then-novel concept of orange juice. As part of the campaign, Sunkist offered reamers as promotional items, Robison said.

Citrus fruit back then was individually wrapped, so Sunkist and other growers' associations offered reamers at a discount to people who saved their orange wrappers, Robison said, and the orange juice market mushroomed.

Victim of Technology

During the 1920s, manual reamers became the juicer of choice for most Americans, and the mechanical reamers, technically known as squeezers, faded. "They did have a relay race to determine whether it is better to be reamed or squeezed," Gillham said, smiling. "Reaming won." ("I prefer squeezing, myself," added another collector.)

The heyday of reamers lasted through the 1930s and into World War II. In fact, some of the most valuable reamers were manufactured during the Depression, when brightly colored juicers were practically given away in promotions, Walker said.

Then, in the 1940s, the death knell of reamers was sounded. "There was about 200 years of history of reamers, and then frozen orange juice came along and pfft, " Walker said. Electric juicers also helped squeeze out the old-fashioned reamer, and by the 1960s it was difficult to find them in stores.

Most of the reamers sold today are plastic, and even those aren't always easy to find.

But that's good news for reamer collectors, since the scarcity of the devices inflates their value. The reamers assembled at the convention are worth about $250,000.

"A lot of people here, this is their investment," said Gillham, who works for a mortgage company in Los Angeles. "They plan to sell them later to support their retirement."

Mary Walker has written two books about reamers and was one of the founders of the reamer collectors association. The way she started collecting reamers was "kind of a fluky thing. A girlfriend of mine, a decorator, gave me one to use as a candy dish," she said. "I think I had about 15 before I realized that I was buying them just because I didn't have them."

Like many reamer collectors, Mary Walker was a bit embarrassed about her hobby because it seemed silly at first. There are about 125 memberships in the association, with about half of them couples.

The association attracts new members mostly by word of mouth. One San Diego woman first learned of the group when she saw the hotel marquee welcoming the reamer collectors to the city.

"She said, 'I collect reamers--I have 300 of them--and I've collected them for eight years. I never knew there was an association,' " Ed Walker said. "She joined last night."

Walker added that there are probably many more "closet collectors" who "are afraid to admit they collect these things."

The association's members tend to joke about their hobby--especially the odd name. However, Mary Walker notes, "You can't say you're not serious when you spend $2,000 on a piece of glass in earthquake country. You've got to be a lunatic and be serious about it."

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