The best thing since sliced bread
EC: A Concise History of the Modern Toaster
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My grandfather gave me a heavy, plastic Piggly Wiggly bag the other day. On it was a strip of masking tape, on which the words "Ashlie's First Toaster" were scrawled in black Sharpie ink. The toaster inside is a clunky little thing—meant as a joke because I still haven’t purchased one for my first post-graduation apartment—but I am drawn to it for its Art Deco design, in spite of the fact that its ropy cord smells perpetually singed. The brand (Victory) and the company name (Chicago Electric Mfg. Co.) are printed on the bottom. I punch those specifications into Google and find that I have a 1930s Victory Handyhot flopper toaster—the kind where you stick the bread in on the sides and “flop it” over after a few minutes—sitting on my counter.

As I began experimenting with my lil’ Handyhot—watching intently as the winding interior coils turn a brassy red—I couldn’t help but think of the assembly-line process that must have been used to create this toaster, passing from one hand to the next until it was complete and in the home of some 1930s housewife, then passed from decade to decade until it was found by my grandfather, unappreciated in some thrift shop.

I flop my toast, and wonder how we got here. I mean—how did we get to sleek, pop-up toasters that have the capability to crisp up bread, waffles, and breakfast pastries in no time flat (all while catching the crumbs)?

By the time I slid my slightly burnt toast onto a plate, I was ready to find out.

Jeanine Head Miller is the curator of domestic life at the Henry Ford Museum, which recently acquired the entirety of the Toaster Museum Foundation collections.

Miller, who describes herself as one of those people who has always loved history, says her areas of expertise include sewing materials, vacuums, dishwashers, textiles, and small kitchen appliances like toasters. She gives a rundown of the history of the toaster as we know it today.

“Very early on, people stuck bread on rod iron forks, holding it over the fireplace or perhaps putting it in cast iron and toasting it in front of the fire,” Miller says. “Then you have stoves [in the mid-18th century], but they’re coal-fired or wood-fired, so any ‘toasters’ are mechanisms that are put on top of the stoves to heat up.”

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She explains that in the early 20th century, some homes were starting to get electricity, making small household appliances more accessible to home cooks. However, creating something that was functional but also small enough to fit on the kitchen counter presented challenges for manufacturers.

“The first big hurdle for the electric toaster was to find a wire that would conduct heat, but not burn up quickly,” Miller says.

Several inventors tried and failed, but it was General Electric in 1909 that created the first commercially successful toaster in the United States. Its debut was truly the best thing since sliced bread—but then World War One came along about five years later and assembly lines were better used for military apparatus than household appliances.

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“But after the war, more and more homes are wired for electricity,” Miller says. “After all, having an electric toaster doesn’t do you any good unless you have electricity in the home.”

This brings up the next manufacturing challenge: How do you turn the toast so it doesn’t burn? In the case of my flopper toaster, you have to physically remove the bread and insert it back into the appliance, but thankfully inventors knew we could do better.

According to Toastmaster Inc., by 1925, the Waters Genter Company introduced the Model 1-A-1 Toastmaster, the first automatic pop-up, household toaster that could brown bread on both sides simultaneously, set the heating element on a timer, and eject the toast when finished.

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Over the years, Miller says some companies attempted to expand the role of the toaster in the kitchen—“Companies like Armstrong were making these combined appliances that would like brew coffee, do toast, and other sorts of breakfast functions”—but that didn’t catch on. The basic pop-up toaster was here to stay.

“So once you’ve kind of got the mechanism down, how do you differentiate yourself in the market?” Miller says. “That’s where design comes in.”

There were, of course, some basic trends through the ages. In the 1930s, toasters became very streamlined and looked that way until the 1950s. And then in the late 1950s into the 1960s, they start to take on a more linear, modern form. Colors were popular in those decades, too—red, yellow, cyan—and the Toaster Museum Collection includes examples of toasters with patterns. “We even have a 1970s ‘hippie print’ toaster,” Miller says.

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According to Miller, probably the biggest toaster development in recent years was that, in the mid-1980s, the slots for toasters were made wider to accommodate a burgeoning nationwide love of bagels. “You can’t squeeze a big bagel in a skinny slot,” she points out.

As the history lesson wraps up, Miller gives a contemplative sigh. “There’s a real emotional appeal to the toasters, you know? More than some other practical appliances in the kitchen.”

And it’s true. Pop culture shows making toast as morning ritual (think Lucy Ricardo scraping burnt bread for Ricky’s breakfast) and the toaster as the brave little appliance that brings us that moment. But Miller believes the phenomenon goes deeper—she points out that sharing bread is a human act that goes way back, and that there’s something deeply ingrained about a desire to gather around the fire or hearth. Perhaps the toaster is a modern-day stand-in?

“Or maybe it’s just because they are small and kind of cute,” she laughs.

Regardless, after our conversation, I pull my Handyhot out of the Piggly Wiggly bag again and set it out —my own little countertop hearth, ready to face the morning.