Toast isn’t a 20th-century invention: People had always stabbed slices of bread with sticks and held them over a flame. In the early 19th century, metalsmiths and manufacturers even produced special forks and tong-like utensils with metal cages at their ends to brown bread.

But the toaster as we know it, the plug-in electric toaster, wasn’t possible until the turn of the century. You had to have access to electric current, and electric power grids in the United States were only a dream until Thomas Edison and others started building their own in the late 1800s. Even more importantly, you had to have the right metal to turn an electric current into heat. British inventors made several attempts at electric toasters around the turn of the century, but all of these were dangerous: The iron wires would either catch on fire or melt.

Toasting bread with electricity was first made possible in 1905, when American metallurgist Albert L. Marsh developed a nickel-chromium alloy. This alloy, which he patented as “chromel” on February 6, 1906, was low in electrical conductivity, infusible, and resistant to oxidation, which made it the perfect metal to shape into filament wires and coils for heating elements. Shortly after, inventor George Schneider of the American Electrical Heater Company filed a patent for a toaster that was never built.

At the time, Marsh was working with an entrepreneur named William Hoskins, who owned a chemistry consulting firm in Chicago. The two formed Hoskins Manufacturing Company and introduced the table cooker ToastStove in 1909. Their toasters and other appliances failed on the market, but they found success licensing Marsh’s chromel wire (now known as “nichrome”) to other appliance manufacturers.

In an effort to dodge Marsh’s patent, General Electric patented its own nickel-chromium alloy, called “calorite,” this one with containing iron, in 1908. In 1909, GE introduced its D-12 bread toaster, invented by Frank Shailor, which was a commercial success, 19 years before the invention of bread-slicing machines in 1928. (People had to slice the bread themselves, then insert it into the toaster—can you imagine?)

The D-12 had a porcelain base that served as an insulator, protecting the table or counter it sat on from electricity and heat. Four vertical metal heating coils were mounted in a row perpendicular to the base, and two slices of bread were held near the coils by metal baskets. This toaster also came with a detachable metal toast rack that rested above the coils, acting as a warmer for toasted slices. For an additional cost, you could buy a D-12 with a floral decoration on the base; these rare versions are particularly collectible today.

Despite the D-12’s success, electricity was pricey and few people had access to it in 1909. Electric appliances didn’t really take off until 1912, when the more efficient alterna...

Over the next 100 years, toasters became works of art. Made of metal, wood, porcelain, and Bakelite, beautiful and inventive toasters became the centerpieces of matching kitchen sets that might include coffee pots, urns, sugars, creamers, sandwich toasters, toast racks, and trays. Today, the collectibility of a toaster depends on its rarity, aesthetics, and the ingenuity that went into the design of its electrical and mechanical works.

In the 1910s, Hoskins took GE to court over its use of his patented alloy, and won a large settlement. GE also paid Hoskins for part ownership of the chromel patent, which pretty much every toaster manufacturer had to pay royalties to use. As a result, nearly all toasters made between 1915 and 1923, when the patent expired, are marked “ Feb. 6, 1906” and “LMP” (for “Licensed Under Marsh Patents”) in a diamond shape.

Early toasters, like the D-12, only toasted one side of the bread at a time. So the first problem inventors wanted to tackle was how to get both sides of the slice evenly toasted without burning one’s fingers in the process. In 1914, married couple Lloyd and Hazel Copeman, of the Copeman Electric Stove Company, were issued five patents for ways to “turn the toast” in their “automatic” toasters.

To avoid paying the Copemans royalties, other inventors got creative about how their machines turned toast. Some toasters had little baskets that swung the bread around; another used a conveyor belt to shuttle the slices past the heat. Westinghouse, however, just went ahead and paid out, producing toasters identical to Copeman’s under its brand name and a mark that read, “Under license of Copeman patents.”

The next problem to solve was the bread getting toasted a little too much, a.k.a. burnt toast. Some companies, like Sunbeam Corporation, came up with toasters that shut off the heat automatically after the slice was toasted, using either a bimetallic strip or a clockwork timer, but the toast still had to be manually inserted into and lifted out of the toaster.

Truly automatic toasters didn’t appear until Charles P. Strite, a master mechanic at a factory in Stillwater, Minnesota, got fed up with the burnt toast served at the company cafeteria during World War I. He went home and tinkered until he had devised a toaster that sported both springs and a timer. His 1919 invention, the pop-up toaster, was patented in 1921.

That year, Strite established the Waters-Genter Company to produce this toaster and sell it to restaurants. His first 100 toasters were hand-assembled, and sold to the Childs restaurant chain. Strite’s earliest Toastmasters are known as “diner toasters,” because they were made exclusively for restaurants and often toasted as many as three slices of bread at a time. One knob controlled the pop-up arm, while another determined the level of browness.

In 1926, Waters-Genter produced an improved-upon version of Strite’s design, and sold it to the public as the Toastmaster model, 1-A-1, with a triple loop logo inspired by the heating elements. This new household Toastmaster, sold between 1926 and 1929, held one slice of bread and had two Bakelite handled levers. The left lever controlled the pop-up timer, and the right the browness. Under the right-hand lever, a small metal peg was used to determine how toasted you wanted the bread to be, from A to G.

The Toastmaster was a tremendous success, and the company got a boost in 1930, when the Continental Baking Company introduced sliced Wonder Bread nationwide. Waters-Genter, absorbed into the Edison electrical conglomerate, eventually became the Toastmaster company.

Toasters of the Art Deco era of the 1920s and 1930s are the most popular with collectors because they are just so beautiful. For example, the All Rite Company produced several streamlined Hostess sandwich toasters in bold Fiesta-like blocks of color. The rarest and most collectible Hostess, however, is a double sandwich toaster with flowers adorning the white body.

Also particularly coveted is George Curtiss’ 1929 heart-shaped Universal toaster for Landers, Frary & Clark. This gorgeous embossed nickel-plated metal toaster has two bread baskets controlled by a push-button, which cycles the slice for toasting each side.

Two lovely porcelain toasters are highly desirable because they appeal to collectors of particular china patterns, matching items in kitchen sets from the coffee pot to the sugars. The Toastrite, for example, made by the Pan Electric Manufacturing company from the late 1920s to the 1930s, comes in the Blue Willow and Pink Willow china patterns and has recently sold for thousands of dollars. Porcelier Manufacturing Company, which specialized in a basketweave porcelain with a wildflower decal designed by Emil Hasentab, also made a late 1930s toaster in this pattern, which also sells for big bucks now.

While electric toasters were impressive, some inventors weren’t satisfied that they just toasted bread. A few attempted all-in-one breakfast machines that could make coffee and toast bread at the same time. The 1920s Armstrong gizmo known as the Perc-O-Toaster did exactly that.

Other quirky and coveted toasters include Ledig’s spherical Toaster-Cooker from the early 1920s, which came with a toast basket, a sandwich holder, and a pan for holding butter. The slice is inserted into the streamlined nickel-plated ball sideways, and then the rounded interior helps reflect heat back onto the toast. Edicraft’s late 1920s and early 1930s toaster closes around the bread. The user sets the desired brownness between 1 and 6, and then presses the timer button. When the toast is ready, the Edicraft opens like a flower.

Another favorite is the Toast-O-Lator, made by Crocker Wheeler Electric Manufacturing Company in the late 1930s and 1940s. A slice is inserted on the right side of the Toast-a-Lator, and it is then carried past the heating element on a little conveyor chain. The toaster even has a little round “Wind-O-Spy” window where you can watch your toast go by.

In the late 1940s, Sunbeam introduced its Radiant Control toasters, which didn’t use levers at all. For models like the T-20, T-35, T-40, and T-50, all one had to do was place bread in the slots and it was automatically lowered. Then, a bimetallic strip inside the toaster sensed the heat passing through the slice, and the toaster would shut off and release the bread when it was perfectly toasted. These toasters were definitely luxury items, selling for the equivalent of several hundred dollars today, but because they were built to last, most still or work or are easily repairable.

Other early toaster manufacturers and brands include Kenmore, Montgomery Ward, Hotpoint, Made-Right, Heatmaster, Gold Seal, Fitzgerald, Electro Weld, Delta, Chicago Electric, Bersted, Capitol, Manning-Bowman, Rutenber, Royal Rochester, Samons, Proctor Electric, Son-Chief, Simplex, Toastswell, and Utility Electric.

In the '60s, mass-produced toasters became inexpensive enough that pretty much every middle-class household in the United States could afford one. In the 1980s and 1990s, further toaster innovations included wider slots for Texas toast and bagels, as well as the inclusion of microchip controls and heat-resistant plastics.

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