Skip to main content

The Buyable Past

June 2024
1min read


The first electric toaster, introduced by General Electric in 1909, didn’t look anything like the long-handled tongs that had previously been used to toast bread over fire. GE was best known at the time for making equipment for huge transforming stations, and its D12 looked remarkably like a transforming station sized to a countertop. The entire design consisted of resistance coils and connecting wire, planted on a porcelain base. The industry’s next models generally looked like traps for animals with rectangular feet.

In the early days, though, no electric toaster was considered too ugly and no dining room too elegant to make room for one. People had long been frustrated by stove-made toast, for as Good Housekeeping pointed out in 1935, “By the time it had been made and buttered in the kitchen, piled on a plate, and brought to the table, it was cold, limp, and thoroughly unappetizing.”

Approximately I three minutes after the introduction of the first electric toaster, cold toast was as passé as long-handled tongs.

Despite the disdain of Good Housekeeping , it is hard to think of any toast as being entirely unappetizing—unless it is burned to a crisp. Unfortunately, the first toasters produced more than their share of charcoal. “Breakfast must be ready, I smell the toast burning,” was the joke of the early years. In those days, an electric toaster heated the bread, one side at a time, to the 310 degrees needed for toasting. But it didn’t know when to stop. A person who might understandably be distracted by an article in the newspaper or an argument at the table was supposed to keep watch and remove the toast at just the right time.

The greatest breakthrough in toaster technology came in 1926 with Toastmaster’s automatic model, which shut off the current and “popped” the toast u once it was done. “Pop-down” models, on the other hand, let the toast slide onto a plate. The landmark Toast-O-Lator of 1936 eliminated not only carbonization in bread but boredom in people, taking slices of bread on a walk past the heating elements, while interested observers watched the process through a porthole in the middle.

By 1948 a good toaster had no fewer than 275 parts, up from about 14 in 1909. And more features were on the way, reaching a zenith of sorts in 1962 with the Travl-Toast, which plugged into a car’s cigarette lighter to take care of emergencies between restaurants.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.