Quite often when one thinks of baseboard heating it usually involves images of ugly, rusty, nondescript lengths of metal. The fact is, baseboard heating can be found in nearly all cold climate areas of North America. So why did such a popular method of home heating receive so little attention to detail way back when it all began in the early 50's? Why couldn't the covers have been be made to enable easy replacement when they get old and banged up? Why not design them with a visually appealing aesthetic that compliments a home's interior?
I've studied the hydronic baseboard heating industry for years and believe the answer can be found in the relationship between the finned tube element manufacturers and the plumbing/heating trades people. The basic design for all hot water baseboard heaters is nearly identical from every manufacturer that ever existed in the industry. The installation methodology has also remained pretty much the same with thin gauge steel consistently being the material of choice for the covers. It is however the method of selling and servicing baseboard heaters that is the most important consistency in explaining why the covers are so prone to rust and dents and yet are not designed to be easily replaced. Once the baseboard heaters are installed in a home, it's just a matter of time before the covers become an ugly mess. And this is normally the time when a heating professional will be called to propose a solution.
When the heating contractor is invited into the home, it becomes a great opportunity to sell stuff like a new boiler, a heating system inspection or perhaps new baseboard heater covers. Prior to the innovation of the easy slip on baseboard heater cover this was the only method of rejuvenating old, yet perfectly functional, baseboard heaters. The labor component on this remove and replace method is huge when one considers how the original heaters have been installed. So it is fair to conclude that by originally selecting a design for baseboard heater covers that incorporated cheap thin gauge steel that is installed in a permanent manner, the manufacturers are assuring many future labor hours for heating contractors. In return, heating contractors; acting as a prime source of sales for the finned tube element manufacturers, would then be in a unique position to sell the manufacturer's products directly to the consumer. It's all about gaining access to the home.
Designers call it "design for obsolescence". Baseboard heater manufacturers probably call it an insurance policy for future sales. This could explain why the two remaining large players in the home hydronics business still make the exact same baseboard heater cover as they did 60 years ago.