Bad Doors, Bad Handles, Bad Feet. And Bad Toast.
By Bill Meehan
"Every electric toaster, whether it costs fifteen dollars or less than one dollar, will make toast. But...some...brown the middle of a slice of bread leaving the bottom or sides almost untouched... have handles which get so hot that they can't be touched without the risk of a burn... or get hot enough underneath to ruin a painted or varnished tabletop."
-Consumers Union Reports, November, 1936.
The Machine Age, the era in America between the World Wars, was characterized as much by the growth in the number and acceptance of household machines as it was by machine inspired art and design. In response to the multitude of new machines, products, and competing brands for the home, Consumers Union was founded to help consumers find the "best buy."
Soon after its founding in 1936, Consumers Union published a critique of electric toasters. Under a photograph of a Challenge Catalog #860 (see above) turnover appeared the caption "Bad doors, bad handles, bad feet. And bad toast," setting the tone of the article that followed. Though most of its views were not as contentious, the Union's contemporary opinions of now hard-to-find and collectable toasters are fascinating.
Although all toasters would eventually be patterned after the successful, pop-up "Toastmaster," in 1936 there were other electrically heated methods of making toast. So Consumers Union classified toasting devices. "Automatic" toasters ejected toast, shut off power, or both. "Semi-automatic" toasters shut off power, rang a bell, or flashed a light to signal the user to turn the bread. Toasters with none of these features were labeled "non-automatic."
Moreover, Consumers Union established universal standards for toasters. "Acceptable" toasters had to brown bread uniformly. Handles and feet needed to be sufficiently insulated to protect the user and table top from burns. And wiring had to be properly insulated against electric shock and, at most, glow "a cherry red" as wire that "heats to a bright yellow or lemon color...will burn out rapidly." For what Consumers Union called "turnover type" toasters, there was an additional requirement: the hot doors had to allow bread to be easily turned without upsetting the toaster or touching the table top.
Consumers Union judged not only the quality of the toast produced, but subjected toasters to rigorous testing. Since most toasters were used at the breakfast table, non-automatic models were left on for long periods to see if they would scorch a table top or, in some cases, ignite it. Toasters were also tested for potential shock hazards by applying 1,000 volts of alternating current between their frames and electrical parts.
Eighteen toasters were reviewed in Consumers Union Reports in November 1936:
Proctor Model 1444
Universal Model E7822
- Proctor Turn-o-matic Model 1453, $2.95 (non-automatic turnover, rated a "best buy.") "Construction good although toast does not always turn freely.
- Heatmaster Cat. #884, $3.95 (semi-automatic turnover, rated the best buy among "automatic" toasters.) "Excellent construction - somewhat similar to that of Proctor Model 1440."
- Hotpoint Model 119T45, $2.95 (non-automatic turnover.) "Construction better than average."
- Manning-Bowman Model 78, $2.95 (non-automatic turnover.) "Construction fairly good. Toasts poorly at bottom, and occasionally at side."
- Universal Model E 6912, $3.25 (non-automatic turnover; Universal toasters were manufactured by Landers, Frary & Clark.) "Construction sturdy, but stiff hinges may make doors hard to close. Occasionally fails to toast thoroughly at side."
- Royal Rochester Model 13320, $2.95 (non-automatic turnover.) "Toast not always uniform. Molded handles become too hot."
- Sunbeam Model 4, $4.95 (Horizontal table-stove, non-automatic.) "May be used for toasting thick sandwiches. Toast lightly streaked. No handles on base, hence cannot be conveniently carried when hot. Bottom hinged to remove crumbs."
- Proctor Thermostatic Model 1440, $5.95 (semi-automatic turnover.) "Excellent construction; has spring to hold doors closed. Thermostat has settings well marked."
- Toastmaster Model 1B6, $16.00. "This is a two-slice, fully automatic toaster. On test, one sample showed electric insulation failure at high voltage and high temperature. Shock hazard in normal use will probably be slight, however. Toasts both sides at once; gives very even toast. Excellent mechanical construction, with thermally compensated, clock-work, time control which toasts the first slices longer than those put in after the toaster is hot."
- Universal Model E 7822, $14.95. "Off-on switch on cord. Two-slice, fully automatic toaster. Construction good; but since there is no thermal compensation, the toaster should be pre-heated for a minute or so before using. Sometimes does not toast uniformly. Crumbs can be removed only by shaking the toaster."
The following toasters were rated "not acceptable":
- Ward's Supreme Quality Cat. #5131, $1.87 (made by Electrahot Mfg. Co. for Montgomery Ward, non-automatic turnover.) "Black-enameled base radiates excessive heat to table top. Doors rest on table when open. Handles poorly designed; one came off in packing. Toasts poorly at bottom of slice."
- Heatmaster Cat. #1183, $1.89 (non-automatic turnover.) "Excessive tabletop temperature. Doors rest on table when open. Poor mechanical construction. Toasts lighter at bottom of slice."
- Ward's Standard Quality Cat. #5258, $3.69 (semi-automatic turnover.) "Poor construction; attached cord passes through loose porcelain bushing; heating element has extremely loose mounting. Badly shaped, making toaster difficult to open without touching hot metal. Rim of base may scratch tabletop if toaster is tipped slightly while on table." [Consumers Union Reports might have confused the name and prices of this model with "Ward's Supreme Quality" toaster.]
- Westinghouse Model TTC-I-4, $3.50 (non-automatic turnover.) "Door hinges very stiff; has small handles so placed as to make opening the door difficult. Considerable risk of burn, or of upsetting toaster when turning the toast. Fails to toast bread thoroughly along the side."
- Handy Hot "Sterling" Model AEUE No. 504, $1.48 (made by Chicago Electric Mfg. Co., non-automatic turnover.) "Table-top temperature exceeded 200 degrees in normal operation. No insulating feet. Badly shaped, making toaster difficult to open without touching hot metal. Flimsy construction; bad design of springs on doors makes operation with one hand impossible."
Consumers Union found some toasters so "generally and obviously inferior [in their] design and construction" they were ranked below "not acceptable." Such toasters "were not given the performance test" because they "showed poor heat insulation. Handles did not protect the user against contact with the hot toaster. The doors rest on the table when open."
The toasters singled out for this censure were:
- Challenge Cat. #860, $.89 (the toaster shown at the beginning of this article, a non-automatic turnover sold by Sears.) "Enamel fumed badly when heated."
- Ward's Two Slice Cat. #5238, $.85. (sold by Montgomery Ward.)
There was some improvement in the quality of toasters when Consumers Union revisited them in August 1939. Of the 34 toasters reviewed, none were considered unworthy for testing or cited for smoldering paint, although the handles of one turnover burned and its chrome plating discolored. Pop-up toasters were becoming more common and plastic bases were supplanting fiber and wooden feet.
Consumers Union Reports remarked "an electric toaster is an excellent modern convenience - but it is also one convenience which is likely to have considerable nuisance value. The poorest toaster will yield better toast than any... old-fashioned methods. On the other hand, the electric gadget may administer a nasty electric shock... burn your fingers, scorch or burn your table.
Consumers Union judged the following non-automatic turnover toasters "acceptable" and listed them "in estimated order of merit, price considered."
- Manning-Bowman Cat. #86, $2.95. "Made fair quality toast. Doors swing down against table top and may mar surface when hot."
- Made-Rite Cat. #842, $1.95 (by Made-Rite Mfg. Co. of Sandusky, Ohio.) "Toasted very slowly, but made satisfactory toast. Doors swing down against table top and may mar when hot."
- Universal Model E 121A, $3.95. "Handles became hot in use. Made average quality toast."
- Universal Model E 7812A, $3.95. "Toast less uniform than average."
- GE Cat. #119f48, $4.50. "Doors may be shifted to accommodate unusually thick bread or sandwiches. Toast less uniform than average."
- Samson United Model 198, $5.98. "Large plastic base, convenient but fragile. Doors may be shifted to accommodate unusually thick bread or sandwiches. Made average quality toast."
- Westinghouse Cat. #TE-4, $4.95. "Toast less uniform than average."
- Westinghouse Cat. #TTC-154, $3.95. "Made average quality toast. Some danger this toaster will scorch the table top if the current is left on longer than 20 minutes without making toast."
- GE Cat. #119T53, $3.50. "Doors may be shifted to accommodate unusually thick bread or sandwiches. Made average quality toast. Some danger that this toaster will scorch the table top if the current is left on longer than 10minutes without making toast."
- Toastmaster Jr. Model 1B7, $7.50. "Pop-up type, but toast must be popped up by hand. lnsulation failed on high voltage test; possible hazard of electric shock after period of use. Table top temperature rose high enough to scorch a varnished surface if current left on longer than 30 minutes without making toast. Rated "Acceptable" because equipped with switch which turns toaster off when toast is popped up. Made exceptionally uniform toast. Toasted both sides at once. Price high for a non-automatic toaster."
The following non-automatic toasters were rated "not acceptable":
- Reverso Cat. #512-8, $2.50 (made by Knapp-Monarch.) "Door operation very poor. Handles charred in use and chromium plating became discolored. Some danger this toaster will scorch the table top if current is left on longer than 30 minutes without making toast."
"There was no essential difference between the following two toasters. Rated 'Not Acceptable' only because table top temperature rose high enough to represent a possible fire hazard if current is left on without making toast. Except for this hazard, they would be "Acceptable." Doors linked together so that slices of toast were turned when either door was opened, but doors may need adjusting for easy operation. Made average quality toast."
- Sear's Heatmaster Cat. #1971, $1.89.
- Proctor Turn-O-Matic Model 1453, $2.95.
Listing "acceptable" semi-automatic toasters, Consumers Union observed "these offered nearly all the advantages of the fully automatic type, and cost less.
- Sear's Heatmaster Cat. #1973, $3.29 (rated a "best buy.") "Thermostat controlled. Bell rang when each side of toast was done. Doors linked together so that both slices of toast were turned when either door was opened. Automatic operation of thermostat kept finished toast warm. Made average quality toast."
- Proctor Model 1444, $3.29 (rated a "best buy.) "Tests revealed no essential difference, except for the cord, between this toaster and the Sear's."
- Proctor Model 1440, $4.95. "Thermostat controlled. Similar in essential details to toasters listed above."
- Samson #505-2, $4.98. "Clock-controlled. Current switched off when each side of toast was done. Had a single control lever which had to be carefully set for each piece of toast and was therefore less convenient than the two control system used in clock-controlled toasters. You may burn your fingers setting the control. Made average quality toast slowly."
Two semi-automatic toasters were "Not Acceptable":
- Ward's Automatic Cat. #5213, $4.45. "Thermostat-controlled. Current switched off when each side of the toast was done. Made medium-light toast, even with controls set for darkest possible toast. Door operation poor. lnsulation failed on high voltage test, and current-carrying parts were in contact with frame when received; serious danger of electric shock."
- Westinghouse Cat. #TTC144, $5.95. "Although the word 'automatic' figured prominently in the advertising of this toaster, it was not in fact automatic. A timer rang when the toast was ready but it did not shut off the current. Timer unreliable and became inoperative after a short period of use. Greatly overpriced."
Finally, Consumers Union discussed "acceptable fully automatic" toasters. Those with most ingenious mechanisms and best-loved by collectors, the Samson Tri-Matic, Toast-O-Lator (shown at right), and Universal E 7822, were grudgingly rated "acceptable":
- Sear's Heatmaster Cat. #1974, $7.25 (rated a "best buy.) "Thermostat controlled. Pop-up type. Light turned off to indicate the toast was done, but toast had to be popped up by hand. Automatic operation of thermostat kept finished toast warm. Made exceptionally uniform toast.
- Sear's Heatmaster Cat. #2094, $8.95 (rated a "best buy.") "Thermostat controlled. Pop-up type. Very similar to Heatmaster #1974, but had a signal bell added to indicate when toast was done and a trigger-release knob to pop up toast. Automatic operation of thermostat kept finished toast warm. Made exceptionally uniform toast."
- Dominion Style #5141, $5.49 (distributed by Montgomery Ward as Cat. #5140.) "Clock-controlled. Pop-up type, but had to be popped up by hand. Toasted very slowly and had to be preheated before first slice of bread was inserted. Made average quality toast. Audible click indicated toast was done, switch turned off all but 75 watts of electricity to keep it warm; therefore, this toaster must not be plugged in when not in use."
- Sunbeam Model T-7, $12.95. "Thermostat-controlled. Pop-up type. Current switched off with audible click when toast was done and small light went out, but toast had to be popped up by hand. Plastic molding around base. Made very uniform toast."
- Manning-Bowman Cat. #110, $12.95. "Clock-controlled and must be preheated or first slices of toast will be light. Current switched off when toast was done. Pop-up type, but toast had to be popped up by hand. Handle became hot in use. Plastic molding around base. Made very uniform toast."
- Universal Model E 7122, $9.95. "Clock-controlled and must be preheated or first slices of toast will be light. Bell rang when toast was done. Handle became hot in use. Made average quality toast. When toast was done, switched off all but 100 watts of electricity to keep it warm; therefore, this toaster must not be plugged in when not in use. Part of toaster hinged to permit removal of toast."
- Universal Model E 7822, $12.95. "Clock-controlled and must be preheated or first slices of toast will be light. Finished toast popped out, but full current continued to flow as long as toaster plugged in. Made average quality toast."
- Samson Tri-Matic Model 194, $11.95. "Clock-controlled and must be preheated or first slices of toast will be slightly lighter than the rest. Generally clumsy to operate. Toast inserted on rack at side which slides into toaster when turned on, but trigger-release knob must be pressed to pop out toast. lnsulation failed on high voltage test; some danger of electric shock. Plastic base. Toasted three slices at a time, but had switch to cut off current to two of four heating elements when only one slice of bread was to be toasted. Made average quality toast. When toast was done, switch turned off all but a small amount of electricity to keep it warm, so this toaster must not be left plugged in when not in use. Audible click indicated toast was done."
- Toastmaster 2 Slice Automatic Model 1B8, $16. "Clock-controlled, but automatically compensated for cold start so no preheating required. Toast popped up and current when done. Plastic molding around base. Made good quality toast. A well-designed toaster, but priced high."
- GE Cat. #129T75, $16. "Clock-controlled, but automatically compensated for cold start so no preheating required. Toast popped up and current turned off when done. Made good quality toast. Plastic molding around base. Design similar to that of Toastmaster; price high."
- Toast-O-Lator Model C, $14.95 (made by Crocker-Wheeler Electric Mfg. Co., Ampere, NJ.) "Bread was carried slowly through the toasting compartment by a motor-operated conveyor. Must be preheated. No provision for retoasting too light toast. If bread slices not uniform or too large, possibility of their sticking in toaster and burning. Difficulty as to the degree of toasting appreciably without a screwdriver to change adjustment inside toaster. Working parts durably constructed. Plastic base. Method of conveying toast past heating elements makes exceptionally uniform toast."
These automatic toasters were "not acceptable":
- Proctor De Luxe Automatic Model 1437, $9.95. "Very similar to Sear's #2094. Rated "Not Acceptable" because two out of seven toasters of this model were defective. In one a piece of insulating material has been left out of the signal bell mechanism, so that the current-carrying parts were in contact with the metal frame creating serious danger of electric shock. In the other defective toaster one turn of the heating element wires had come loose from its mica support and was in contact with the toaster frame, also creating a shock hazard. Both of these defects were the result of poor inspection. CU considers the design of this toaster excellent and would rate it a Best Buy' if the final inspection on it were improved."
- Knapp-Monarch Tel-A-Matic Cat. #537, $9.95. Thermostat-controlled. Current switched off when toast was done. Toast popped up by turning knob on side. Current-carrying parts in contact with frame when received, involved serious danger of electric shock. Inspection showed that clearance between bottom metal cover plate and the current-carrying part of the control equipment was inadequate so that it was possible for the two sections to touch each other. This toaster made good toast and would precede the Dominion #5141 in rating if shock hazard were not present."
"There was no apparent difference between the two following toasters, other than ornamentation. They were clock-controlled pop-up type. in both toasters the electrical insulation failed; the current-carrying parts were in contact with the frame creating a serious danger of electric shock. Ward's toast rack slide failed in operation."
- Ward's Automatic Oven-Type Cat. #5141, $7.49.
- Dominion Style 602, $9.95.
Few consumer products were made during World War II. By the time Consumers Union reported on toasters again, many Machine Age toaster makers had gone out of business or merged with the few remaining appliance manufacturers. With post-war prosperity, most families could afford pop-up toasters, and most "turnovers," "semi-automatics" and other inventive, if quirky, mechanisms disappeared.
The new toasters made consistent toast without threatening electrocution, fire, or other calamities. But, in becoming safer and more uniform, post-war toasters lost much of the character that made each Machine Age model unique.