Friday, May 29, 2020

Toaster Pops Up to Make the Great American Breakfast Possible

Inventor Charles P. Strite with his patent number enjoying toast from his invention.

It took a few years, but American breakfast tables were on their way to being revolutionized when Charles P. Strite filed his application for a patent on the electric pop-up toaster on May 29, 1919. 
Toasting bread to preserve it by removing moisture dated back to Roman times.  In the 19th Century various devices were invented to hold slices of bread over an open flame for toasting.  But it was a tricky process requiring diligence and constant attention and a lot of bread simply went up in flames. 
In the 1890’s inventors in England and the United States patented similar devices that toasted bread over heated electrical wires one side at a time.  The devices were crude, expensive, and dangerous since the glowing filaments were openly exposed.  They also frequently failed or burst into flame because the temperature to toast bread—better than 350ยบ Fahrenheit—caused filaments in the air to melt or ignited near-by combustibles. 

A side opening exposed filament two slice toaster.  The bread had to be flipped to toast both sides.
The discovery of a strong nickel-chromium alloy by Albert Marsh made modern electrical toasters practical. George Schneider of the American Electrical Heater Company soon patented a toaster using Marsh’s alloy.  There was a race among dozens of companies to produce practical toasters. 
In 1909 the General Electrical Company’s Frank Shailor patented what would become the first really successful devise, the D-12 Toaster. In 1914 Lloyd and Hazel Copeman perfected a toaster that could flip the bread to face the heating filaments without having to touch it by hand.  Competing companies had to either license the Copeman patents for the Automatic Toaster—as did Westinghouse—or find new ways to expose both sides to heat. 
Dozens of different devices were introduced, but none were really satisfactory until Strite, a master mechanic at a Stillwater, Minnesota plant got tired of burnt toast in the company cafeteria.  Tinkering away, he used a mechanical timer and springs to create a toaster that would “pop-up” a slice of bread that had been heated by filaments on both sides when it reached the correct heat to brown the bread.  He was granted his patent in 1921 and founded the Waters-Genter Company to manufacture and market the toasters to restaurants. 

The instruction booklet for the first single-slice Toastmaster for home use.
Originally assembled by hand, they were far too expensive for home use.  The first 100 were sold to the Childs restaurant chain.  By 1926 the company improved production techniques and redesigned the machine for home use under the brand name Toastmaster.  After 1938 he chrome sides of the toasters were etched with a triple loop logo meant to resemble the heating filaments inside.  The Edison Company eventually absorbed the Toastmaster brand.  Through various owners the name and basic design have continued to be marketed to this day. 
Toastmaster toasters and other appliances were manufactured in a plant in Algonquin, Illinois in McHenry County until the 1990’s.  Now all products are produced offshore, mostly in China.
Although popular, it took another invention to really send sales through the roof and make the toaster a center piece of every home kitchen. 

Otto Rohwedder's final prototype bread slicer in 1930 also wrapped the loaves in paper to keep them fresh. Just five years after it was introduced to the baking industry, 80 %  of bread was sold pre-sliced
Bread was sold through local bakeries in whole loaves.  It had to be hand sliced at home to be put in the toaster.  As anyone who has ever tried it can attest, it takes a very sharp knife and some skill to slice white bread to a proper thickness without either mashing the loaf or sawing it to crumbs.  Which is why prior to 1930 most people probably had biscuits or cornbread with breakfast than toast.  But in 1928 Otto Frederick Rohwedder patented an automatic bread slicing machine that also wrapped and sealed the sliced loaf in protective waxed paper.  
In 1930 the Continental Baking Company introduced Wonder Bread and within just three years pre-sliced bread outsold whole loaves across the country.  With perfectly formed slices, sales of Toastmaster toasters skyrocketed as well.  
The classic art deco design of the two-slice Toastmaster pop-up was little changed for decades.
In the 1930’s the two slice Toastmaster was introduced and remained little changed through the rest of the century.  Most other home toaster brands were very similar.  Four slice models were introduced to speed breakfast for larger families and in the late 20th Century toaster slots were widened to accommodate the rising popularity of bagels far beyond their urban Jewish roots.
In the ‘60’s and ‘70’s front loading toaster ovens came into fashion and promised to be handy for heating TV dinners and other cooking chores as well but the rise of the microwave oven—which can’t toast—took up the kitchen counter space formerly used by the ovens.  Homes that had replaced their pop-up toasters with them had to revert back. 

A vintage GE toaster oven and broiler.
Toastmaster toaster and its main competitors had been a not-inexpensive small appliance designed to be durable over a life time and easily repairable by any handy man.  Many modern replacements made in China or elsewhere in Asia replaced heavy-duty chrome and Bakelite constructions with light weight plastic and other materials.  They cost less than $15 at big box discount stores.  They break or fail after two or three years of regular use and are intended to be disposable and cheaply replaceable.
Pass the butter and jam please.

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