At your convenience: the toaster

Categories: History of food

Angela Clutton explores how the development of kitchen appliances after 1918 both stemmed from and influenced the changing role of women. This time, the toaster

I don’t know about yours, but the dial on my toaster at home requires skills akin to those of a safe-cracker. Too far one way and the bread is barely warmed. A smidge too far the other way: our smoke alarm is raging and no amount of butter can save the alarmingly charred toast.

Not that I would swap our modern way of making toast for that of 100 years ago. That was just before the very first toasters with a spring mechanism were developed, and still many years before British homes would have a toaster as the norm. Households in the early part of the 1900s were very much relying on toasting forks, gridirons and an open hearth. We might now think of hot buttered toast as a simple pleasure, but the mechanics of doing that in a labour-saving way were complex to come up with.

Toastmaster poster

Manual methods
The first toaster was invented by a clever Scot in 1893. It was Alan MacMasters in Edinburgh who developed the Eclipse toaster, which was then marketed by the Crompton Company. The bread sat in a cradle with metal elements in the middle, through which an electric current was passed. The tricky bit was manufacturing a metal filament that didn’t melt, fuse or set alight under the heat of ‘toasting’. Not long after MacMasters’ invention came American models, whose filaments better withstood the heat. Still, these only toasted one side at a time and required manual ways of getting the bread out and turning it over.

It all changed with Charles Strite in Minnesota who was fed up with burnt toast at work and developed the idea of a toaster with springs. Patented in 1921, his was the toaster that the adverts declared could be left to do the job itself with no turning, no burning. A bold claim, but there’s no doubting this was a toaster landmark. By the late 1930s many British households too had an American-style pop-up toaster.

Seismic shifts
I’ve said this before in this series on kitchen appliances and will no doubt say it again: World War II and the appetite for change that overwhelmed Britain in the period afterwards created seismic shifts in our home kitchens. That is as true for toast and toasters as for anything else. The age of convenience had arrived and the toaster was perfect for it. It meant busy families could—as so many of us do now—dash around the kitchen in the morning, putting bread in the toaster and leaving it to pop up perfectly browned. Assuming the toaster’s code had been cracked, of course.

The surge in toaster popularity and availability coincided with the 1960s arrival of Chorleywood processed bread. The one-size-fits-all but tastes of nothing loaf. Toaster designs of that period were very much developed for this ‘regular’ sliced bread and while the overall shape of toasters has remained surprisingly unchanged, modern toasters have had to catch up with evolving bread appetites, which are swinging back to proper bread. Toasters now need to be adept at taking thick slices of hand-cut sourdough, multiple slices, and look stylish in the kitchen while they are at it. They manage it.

Where would our breakfast times be without the pop-up toaster? A mainstay of modern kitchen convenience—one that’s just about less likely to burn toast than using fire and tongs.