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People Who Love Shiny Things

A Connoisseur Lights Up About Flashlights

March 07, 2004|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Timothy Hamilton seems perfectly normal, almost disturbingly normal, until he starts talking about his flashlight collection. "I like the Rayovacs best," he'll tell you. "Rayovacs have the bullet-like back. It was their style." But a few minutes later, he's wavering. "Eveready's the one I like best. I passed on some that maybe I should have bought, but they were like $25 or $40. I sometimes look back and wish I had them." And don't get him started on the on-off switch. "Some have a three-position button: off, and then halfway forward, where it goes on if you depress the button, and then locked on. The Rayovacs have the teardrop-shaped switch. It's kind of Art Deco."

Such is life for a connoisseur. It's not uncommon for Hamilton, a senior vice president and commercial real estate manager with Pacific Western Bank, to look out the window of his Wilshire Boulevard office and see passersby staring in at his vintage flashlights. "You'd be surprised how many people stand outside and talk about my collection like I'm not here," he says. "They talk about the flashlights and point."

Who could blame them? Like so many utilitarian products designed for mass use during the early to mid-20th century, old flashlights are looking more like art objects with each passing year. Flashlights were developed in the late 1800s to replace candles and lanterns and have been called electric hand torches, but Hamilton isn't terribly interested, frankly. Nor is he on a baby boomer's trip down memory lane. Hamilton, 55, went on his share of camping trips while growing up in a small town in Iowa, but "I don't think I've ever been lost in the woods. It's not a nostalgic thing. I just like flashlights."

It started about 1991, he says. "My youngest son was a hockey player. We would go to tournaments in northern Minnesota. I was looking for something for my dad's birthday at an antique store, and I saw this flashlight. It was an Eveready." Hamilton repossessed his dad's birthday gift not long after, and a collection ensued.

Hamilton displays some 30 or so flashlights made between the 1920s and the 1950s, and more are stored in his house in the Ventura County suburb of Oak Park. "I only buy Eveready and Rayovacs, the higher-quality ones, the brass and copper. Brass, because old batteries leaked. Plain metal corrodes much easier than brass." Some of his older models have sturdy paper liners that resemble bathroom tissue rolls. Hamilton cherishes design flourishes such as hooks on the bottom used to hang flashlights while working, or octagon-shaped heads to prevent them from rolling. The thick, glazed nautical-style lenses on a few of his pieces could have been the inspiration for the "Star Wars" lightsabers. "It's an adjustable lens," he says. "If you want to focus really tightly on something, you turn it." The most he's paid for a flashlight was $26 for a 1930s Eveready used by a store employee. "I'm not a madman about these things," Hamilton insists. "I don't spend a lot of time looking for them."

His daughter tells a different story. "He's given up many fun trips with us to go antique shopping for flashlights," says Kelsey Hamilton, a Moorpark College student. "I don't understand it, but I'm OK with it." And Hamilton himself admits to a collecting binge during a recent Christmas vacation in Utah. "One day everyone went snowmobiling. Not me. I went to Ogden to look at the antique stores for flashlights."

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