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Cordless Toasters

An Overview of Non-Electric Toasters
by Eric Norcross © 2000

"The toaster is part of a system and only has significance relative to the wrapped, pan-made, thin-crusted bread that can be used in it," wrote Arthur Berger in an essay entitled The Crux of Toast from the Summer 1990 issue of Et cetera, a quarterly publication of the International Society for General Semantics, and reprinted in the highly-regarded Harper's Magazine. Mr. Berger goes on to write, "Ultimately, the toaster is an apology for the quality of our bread...the toaster represents a heroic attempt to redeem our packaged bread," and he concludes with, "Every piece of toast is a tragedy."

If only Mr. Berger knew what he was writing about.

He is referring to electric toasters, of course, but this point isn't made clear in the essay, and even if it were, his conclusions would still be wrong. The electric toaster was manufactured for at least a couple of decades before packaged, pre-sliced bread appeared on the grocery shelves; in fact, the first automatic, pop-up toaster - the Toastmaster 1-A-1 (1926-30), - was a successful consumer product before sliced, packaged bread.

Mr. Berger is involved with the study of General Semantics and wrote a book on Semiotics which deal with connotative meaning rather than fact. The last issue of hotwire contained a semiotics article on the Sunbeam T-35, which was entertaining even though its conclusions are questionable.

According to Daniel Chandler in Semiotics for Beginners, "In the worst forms of critical practice what passes for 'semiotic analysis' is little more than a pretentious form of literary criticism based merely on subjective interpretation and grand assertions."

So, go to the site above and learn more about semiotics if you wish, and I'll try to leave the pretentious, subjective interpretations behind.

What is known about the long history of toast - and the devices used to make it?

Ramses Bakery
Ramses' Bakery

About 6,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians developed breads as we know them today. They discovered that if they let bread dough sit out in Egypt's nice, warm climate, it would puff up, and if this dough was baked in an enclosed oven it would retain its fluffiness. This seemingly magical process was not fully understood until the 17th Century when the microscope revealed the yeast cells that cause leavening.

The process of scorching bread to preserve it spread through many cultures. The word toast comes from the Latin Torrere, Tostum - to scorch or burn. The Romans, in their conquests, took their love of toasted bread with them and spread the custom farther, even up into Britain. Later, English colonists brought the tradition to the Americas.

Toasting bread does more than just preserve it, of course, it changes its nature; bread becomes sweeter, crunchier and the perfect surface on which to spread all sorts of things.

hearth toaster
16th Century Hearth Toaster
There were a variety of methods for making toast in pre-electric times, from using the hot hearthstone, to putting bread on multi-purpose toasting forks and holding it over a fire, to employing fancy, hinged bread holders that could be attached to the side of a fireplace and swung into the flame.

Most toasting devices made up until the 20th century were unique, hand-crafted items made by the local blacksmith. "The blacksmith appreciated his own work, often embellishing his toasters with curlicues, scrolls, hearts, and loops. The toasters had long handles so that the cook's hands would be well away from the heat," wrote Louise K. Kantz in The Story of the Toaster, which appeared in Spinning Wheel, November 1973.

Earl Lifshey, in his book The Housewares Story, speculated that, "the first regularly manufactured toasters in [the United States] were probably the tin and wire affairs designed to set over a coal stove opening or a gas burner."

The electrical revolution didn't eliminate the invention and production of non-electric toasters and they're still a popular item today with campers, both in the pyramidal and collapsible form.

The 20th century also saw the development of the non-electric sandwich toaster, like the Tonka Toaster shown below. The sandwich toaster opens like a clamshell--you place a slice of bread in the toaster flat, top it with whatever you desire, put another slice of bread on top, close the toaster and hold it over a fire. You end up with a sealed, toasted-whatever-sandwich--yum!

Enjoy this visual survey of "cordless toasters."

Down-Hearth Toaster
17th Century Down-Hearth Toaster

Cross Toaster
Cross Toaster, c. 1880

18th Century Toaster

18th Century Wrought Iron
Hearth Toaster from Pennsylvania

Fairgreve Toaster

Fairgreve Perforated
Tin Toaster
pat. 1897

Steel Toaster

Vulcan Upright Toaster
c. 1905

Hearth Toaster

19th Century
Hearth Toaster

Knoblock Toaster

Knoblock Toaster
Early 1900s

Tonka Toaster

Tonka Toaster

Coghlan Camp Toaster
Coghlan's Camp Stove Toaster, modern

Below: The Toas-Tite "Makes a Luscious Sealed-In Drip Proof Hot Toasted Sandwich"
manufactured by Bar-B-Buns, Inc. of Cincinnati, Ohio. 1950s-60s

Click to read more about this Toas-Tite Ad.

This article first appeared in Volume 3, Number 2 of hotwire, the newsletter of the Toaster Museum Foundation.





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