Back in the days before household electricity, hand-crank appliances were kitchen staples. Hand-crank egg beaters, butter churns, apple peelers and bread makers — these human-powered tools allowed people to process and prepare food efficiently. But many of these traditional appliances have been replaced by electronic ones.
Nevertheless, some people still prefer the timeless designs of hand-crank appliances to their electronic counterparts. They find them to be simpler, more reliable, easier to fix, eco-friendly and in some cases nostalgic.
Catering to that crowd, Lehman’s, a family-owned and operated business in Ohio, sells a wide variety of hand-crank appliances and other power-free tools. Their customers include people who live without electricity, such as the Amish, as well as people who are energy-conscious and seeking to live a simpler life.
“People powered — that’s what we’re about,” said Glenda Lehman Ervin, vice president of marketing and the daughter of the founder of Lehman’s, Jay Lehman. “Our push mower, for example, if it’s not working, you’re not walking. The hand-crank appliances are the same. You put something in, and something else comes out. It’s simple.”
Founded in 1955 as a local hardware store in the heart of Amish country, Lehman’s now sells goods from their flagship store and online.
“We sell oil lamps, cookstoves, hand-crank products — and the key part is, they aren’t antiques. They’re brand new, historically accurate replicas of things your grandmother used,” Ervin said. “The gear mechanism in our apple peeler hasn’t changed since the 1800s — because it works.”
One of the store’s best sellers is their hand-crank Weston Roma Tomato Press and Sauce Maker, which can also be used to make tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, refried beans, baby food, salsa and much more.
Also popular are their several brands of hand-crank grain mills. Other hand-crank items in their inventory include a coffee mill, nut chopper, meat grinder, can opener and blender.
“The [hand-crank] blender is a little more of a novelty item,” Ervin said. “Do you really need a daiquiri if you’re homesteading? Well, maybe you do.”
While most hand-crank appliances can be used to prepare a variety of foods, others have specific purposes — for example, a pea sheller or ice cream maker.
“I have a hand-crank green bean ‘frencher’ that slices green beans lengthwise,” Michael Gray of Rockport, Maine, said. “Works great on those beans that maybe you let grow a day too long.”
Then some hand-crank items — such hand-crank industrial and farming tools — aren’t used to prepare food at all. Hand-crank drills, knife sharpeners, sickle grinders, seed spreaders, hand wringers and compost cranks — these items were used more frequently in the 19th century, but many people use at least a few of these low-tech tools today. In fact, some believe these old designs are coming back into fashion.
In support of this trend, the Museum of Old Techniques or “Museum voor de Oudere Technieken” offers collections of old tools, including many hand-crank tools and appliances, along with demonstrations and hands-on exhibits at three locations throughout Belgium.
“Low tech is back and here to stay,” the museum website reads. “We try all we can to help this revival.”
But not all hand-crank tools are “old.” Hand-crank flashlights, radios and cellphone chargers are newer inventions that often are included in emergency kits.
“My favorite hand-crank is the radio I got from L.L.Bean,” Wanda Greatorex from Corinth, Maine, said. “When ice is so thick it causes big branches to snap and telephone polls to topple, I can crank away a bit and get the latest news from ‘The Voice of Maine.’”
These new inventions that convert human power into emergency electricity only drives home the idea that, at the end of the day, you can always rely on simple, hand-crank appliances and that they’re one important component of being more self sufficient. All you need is a good grip and little elbow grease.