America's Neglected Collectible:Thermometers

Odd Collections, People
on February 9, 2003

When a local newspaper solicited items for its 2050 time capsule, Onset, Mass., resident Richard Porter donated his replica of the ship’s thermometer on the steamer Portland, which sank off Cape Cod in the blizzard of 1888. The original escaped a watery grave, having been removed for repairs just prior to the storm. When filmmaker Oliver Stone needed props for his 1997 movie U-Turn, he called Porter, who sent eight of his thermometers. St. Louis-based beer brewer, the Anheuser-Busch Co., sent Porter its original vat thermometer after installing new vats. And when Baker, Calif., dedicated the world’s tallest thermometer, at 134 feet, Porter was guest of honor.

At age 74, Porter remains a relentless collector of thermometers and contends his collection of 4,244 in Onset (pop. 1,292) is the world’s largest. The sign over the door to his cellar—a J-shaped room crammed with thermometers dating to 1830—proclaims “World’s Only Thermometer Museum.” He recently applied for “largest” collection status with the Guinness Book of Records when he learned that the world record is a mere 384 thermometers.

“If I’d known that, I would have applied earlier,” he says.

Although he recalls his first acquisition—a 1930s vintage “Tydol” thermometer from his uncle’s New Hampshire gas station—Porter didn’t begin collecting in earnest until 1976. As a junior high school science teacher, he was constantly repairing thermometers broken by students. Facing retirement in another five years, he took the advice of his students to “start collecting something or you’ll start collecting moss.”

His collection didn’t become a museum until his daughter, who was terminally ill, asked him to “do something” with his thermometers. Two years after her death in 1991, Yankee magazine celebrated the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s invention and declared Porter’s thermometer collection the world’s largest.

His museum, free to anyone who happens to find him home, is loosely organized by type. Some shelves hold ceramic souvenir thermometers in the shape of dolphins, alligators, fish, and seagulls. Another shelf offers a row of “key” thermometers welcoming visitors to a city, county, state, or business. Seashell thermometers, wooden-log thermometers, Swiss house thermometers, tower thermometers (as in Eiffel Tower and Washington Monument), even thermostats, are in the collection.

The collection also includes some decidedly un-mainstream thermometers, such as the Victorian chandelier thermometer; the sterling silver, Newport mansion, punch bowl thermometer; and a pill-sized thermometer like the one swallowed by Sen. John Glenn for his 1998 space shuttle flight. Obtained with the help of Congressman Barney Frank, the device Porter owns isn’t the same one that toured Glenn’s digestive system: “No one really knows where that one is now,” Porter says.

A frequent lecturer around the country (he’s given nearly 700 talks in the last 12 years), Porter or his museum have been featured on television 43 times. But he may be proudest of his “Science Teacher of the Year” award, bestowed 18 years into his retirement, and his “Ordinary Hero” award presented by the town of Wareham (of which Onset is a part) last year—a fitting award, since he has spoken at more than 100 schools and 75 nursing homes.

Thermometers aren’t his only interest—he’s an active environmentalist, an elder in his church, and a volunteer with AmeriCorps—but they do seem to occupy the top rung. His next project, he says will be to publish the book he’s handwritten on thermometer history.

“Thermometers really are America’s own art deco device,” he says. “They were an important part of American advertising and the souvenir business, but that’s fallen off. Now they’re a neglected collectible.”

Not, however, in the eyes of Accuweather, the Pennsylvania-based weather service, which wants to buy his collection for its national weather museum—and to let him keep the collection for as long as he wants. It’s an offer he plans to accept.

In the meantime, he’ll continue to bask in the glow of a kind of fame few achieve. As Wareham fifth-grader Lauren Kingston wrote in her essay on Porter, “What is heroic is not the thermometers, it’s the great love of learning that Mr. Porter still has …. His enthusiasm for what he does is his real gift to us all.”

America’s Neglected Collectible

When someone with a product to sell first thought of thermometers as an advertising medium, a piece of Americana was born. At one time, thermometers were everywhere, round or upright rectangular tin plaques with a mercury tube in them bearing images touting everything from Coca-Cola to Pennzoil, Farmall tractors, Lionel trains, and Mail Pouch chewing tobacco.

It was a clever idea. Before the time of the Weather Channel and the local TV news weather report, if you wanted to know the temperature you looked at the thermometer on your back porch—or the one at the neighborhood gas station, the barber shop, or the vegetable market.

The first of these product thermometers, Porter says, appeared as early as the 1890s, but their heyday was the period from 1920 to 1950. Everyone got in on it, and thermometers calling people’s attention to goods or services were issued by businesses ranging from giant corporations to the local feed store and funeral home.

Thermometers also promoted towns, tourist attractions, and even movie stars and presidents. A popular thermometer of the 1930s was the Betty Boop Kiss thermometer, with an image of the flapper-like cartoon star above the mercury tube and the quote “Boop-Opp-A-Doop” at the bottom.

That era has passed, but the thousands of thermometers produced as advertising gimmicks have caught the attention of collectors such as Porter and the 100 or so members of the Thermometer Collectors Club of America, where he serves as vice president. Porter calls them “America’s own art deco device.” His collection includes some 300 thermometers that came with a calendar, issued annually by whatever advertiser sponsored the promotion.

“People just threw them away at the end of the year,” he says. But Porter rescues thermometers whenever he can, and cherishes each one he finds. Each year his collection grows by 200 to 300—thermometers either found by him or sent to him by others who are catching on to this wonderful “neglected collectible.”