The Electric Toaster

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The gleaming Toastmaster 1Al on the opposite page didn’t always deliver a perfect piece of toast—what toaster ever has?—and it could process only one slice at a time. Nevertheless, American consumers found it all but irresistible when it was introduced in 1926. To them, it represented more than a good breakfast; it was nothing less than a four-and-ahalf-pound symbol of modernity.

During the 1920s the machine age changed the look of America. An unprecedented growth in advanced technologies spurred by the First World War created both the need for new industrial designs and the materials and processes with which to produce them. The modern style that resulted was a revelation—ahistorical, nontraditional, and, thus, non-European.

For the first time Europeans looked across the Atlantic for cultural inspiration. They saw America as the model for applied industrialization. In Europe domestic machines were essentially curiosities for the elite. But in a rapidly electrifying United States, where mass production and consumption were the order of the day, modernism moved easily into middle-class bathrooms, bedrooms, and, of course, kitchens.

Toastmaster was swept up in the movement. At the start of the twentieth century, most American breakfasters were using cumbersome flip-flop or open-door toasters that heated one side of bread at a time and required careful timing. In 1919 Charles Strite, a mechanic in Stillwater, Minnesota, patented his design for an automatic electric toaster that incorporated a spring, motor, and switch for a built-in timer. For a while Strite custom-built fourslice units in small numbers and sold them to restaurants. Then, in 1921, two businessmen, Glen Waters and Harold Center, joined him to form the Waters-Center Company. While the firm continued the production of commercial toasters, its team of mechanics set to work designing a model that would be suitable for use in the home. In 1925, before the first model came on the market, they registered a name for it: Toastmaster.

Once the partners had succeeded in devising a small toaster, they found they couldn’t turn out more than one unit per day. Then, in 1926, an entrepreneur named Max McGraw purchased Waters-Center and incorporated his new McGraw Electric Company, revived the small-toaster idea, and cut manufacturing costs to a workable level. Thus Model 1Al, the first automatic, pop-up toaster for domestic use, came into the mass market.

Like Jell-O and Kleenex, Toastmaster so closely identified its name with a product that it was considered the only brand to buy.

The compact nickel-plated unit reflected the American trend toward shiny simplicity. A row of horizontal vents on the sides suggested speed (a common modernist motif), while the toaster’s top slid into an almost aerodynamic curve that led the eye to the two black control levers (one for the current, one for the timer). There were no unnecessary adornments outside, and no skimping on materials inside.

“The early Toastmaster toaster was the finest quality ever made,” says Stan Benson, a long-time toaster repairman in Brooklyn, New York. “If you look inside one, you’ll see enough parts to make five or six toasters. The company used four elements, instead of three. While you need only twentyfour inches of wire to make a threehundred-watt element, the Toastmaster element had six feet, which lasted much longer. The shell was solid steel. The chassis was screwed (instead of welded) together for easy repair.”

Despite a retail price of $12.50 at a time when flip-flop models cost $2.00, the svelte, sturdy Toastmaster was a runaway success. The company’s unusual sales force—ladies who carried a loaf of bread under one arm, the toaster under the other—and advertising (“Set It and Forget It!”) convinced America that the automatic toaster was indispensable.

Toastmaster sales boomed until the Second World War turned the company’s production to munitions manufacture. When the toasters reappeared in 1945, their old preeminence had vanished. That year Toastmaster replaced its standard ticking timer with a silent thermostat. The quiet alarmed people; if the machine didn’t make noise, they assumed it didn’t work. More important, the world had changed, and the big chrome units looked outdated. Dipping profits forced the company to use cheaper materials, and engineers found themselves struggling to maintain the Toastmaster quality. But the company came through it all.

Today the firm, having survived several corporate take-overs, is privately held and based in Columbia, Missouri. Early Toastmasters may be found in Art Deco antiques shops around the country; according to dealers, a 1Al in mint condition and still in the original box fetches about seventy-five dollars. But they’re not always easy to find. It seems a lot of the machines are still working just fine, and their original owners—or their descendants—are reluctant to part with them.