This not-so-useful knowledge is right up CulinaryLore’s alley. It would make sense to assume that the toaster, as an invention, didn’t come around until after “sliced bread” was invented, making the toaster the greatest thing since sliced…well, you know. But in reality, the toaster is a good deal older than pre-sliced and packaged bread. People had been slicing bread or just tearing it forever, and there is nothing new in taking some not-so-fresh bread and toasting it to bring on that smell of freshness, and indeed, improving the bread and making it taste less stale.
Why Does Toasting Help Stale Bread?
See, staleness happens as the starches in the bread crystallize. Heating up the bread reverses this process and returns the bread, to some extent, to a more tasty and fresh tasting state. Caramelizing the outer surface by toasting is a bonus. You don’t need a toaster to do this, you can throw pieces of bread into an oven. But long before pre-sliced bread came on the market, the convenience of a toaster occurred to someone.
The First Electric Toaster – Way Before Its Time
Toasting is an ancient practice. The Romans did it and probably weren’t the first. The word toastcomes from the Latin word tostum, which means to scorch or burn. But the first electric toaster, by many accounts, wasn’t invented until 1893 by a British company called Crompton and Co. If that seems a bit early to have developed a heating product that relied on electricity, it is. There wasn’t much electricity flowing around in those days. Heck, Edison didn’t open turn on his Pearl Street power station until September, 1882 and that only served 503 customers by the next year. Central power stations really started taking off by 1890 but in 1863, there was not a big market for an electric toaster.
In addition to the lack of juice, the toaster from Crompton, which was called “The Eclipse,” had wire coils that burned out very quickly, only toasted one side of the bread, and had no controls or even a power switch. This electric bread toaster that barely worked and had many problems came a good sixty years before the first electric stoves began coming on the market. This, at least, established what a toaster was, and before long, somebody was willing to mess around in this fledgling, and risky, business.
The Toaster Improved – Still One Side At a Time
Albert Marsh, in 1905, worked on solving the crappy wire problem, and patented a chromium-nickel alloy that would make high-resistance wire (the kind that glows red hot when you run current through it), that would last a long time. He formed the Hoskins Manufacturing Company to sell the wire. A year later, a guy named George Schneider, who worked for the American Electric Heater Co. of Detroit, came along and invented a new toaster using the wire, which was patented. His company entered into the toaster selling business on the basis of this patent. The wires wouldn’t burn out as fast but it still wasn’t much different than using a wood burning fire to toast bread so that only one side toasted at a time. You had to turn the bread over to heat the other side.
General Electric, in 1909, developed a toaster but using a different wire alloy, hoping this would allow them to work around the previous Marsh wire alloy patent. Hoskins brought a suit and it was found that their design did, indeed, infringe on the patent.
All Those Pretty Toasters – And Finally Both Sides at Once
In 1909, Pacific Electric Heating Company developed a toaster that might be called the first toaster oven, which they sold under the Hotpoint brand, but claimed that they had actually invented the toaster in 1905. Improvements by others followed, such as a better bread holding or “pincher” mechanism designed by Alonzo Warner that Landers, Frary, and Clark used to go into the business, and their firm began making prettier looking toasters which sold well for over a decade. Then came automatic turners and in the mid 1920’s, a toaster made by Frederick Hummel and John Noeth that not only toasted both sides, but had a timer that caused the bread rack to tip out when the timer cycle ended. Finally, you could automatically toast your bread without standing there staring at it.
Many Different Types: Pinchers, Swingers, Flatbeds, Droppers, Perchers, and Floppers
Many of the innovations in toasters had concerned the mechanism for expelling the toasted bread. There were pinchers, swingers, flatbeds, droppers, tippers, perchers, and floppers, but these were still manually controlled. The greatest toaster was yet to come.
Finally, The Pop-Up Toaster! Enter the Toastmaster
That greatest of all toasters is the one we know today and it was in 1919 that the first Pop-up Toasterwas invented by Charles Strite. This had elements on both sides, a timer, and a spring that popped the bread up when the timer cycle was done. The basic design of a toaster that is still used today! You’ve got to hand it to Strite. Nobody has been able to improve on his basic design for almost 100 years. Everything since then has been bells and whistles. There was, however, a similar type of toaster which was a side loading “pop-out” toaster, made by Superior Electric Products under the brand name “SuperElectric,” which popped to the toast out onto a warming plate, but this was nothing to the pup-up, because of the moving parts involved.
This first pop-up toaster entered the market in 1926 and was called the Toastmaster. See a photo of an early Toastmaster. Only one slice! Also, check out photos of all sorts of early toasters at the Toaster Museum Foundation site. Don’t miss the Perc-O-Toaster, which allowed you to brew coffee and toast bread all in one appliance. The breakfast of champions!
After the toastmaster came on the market, toaster sales hit the moon, and by 1960, almost every house in the US had a toaster in it. Advertisements claimed “You don’t have to watch it – The toast can’t burn.” Of course, the toast could burn, and it still can. We’ve all done it.
The First Sliced Bread
So, how does the invention of sliced bread fall into this time-line? Well, about the time Hoskins, Pacific Electric, and General Electric were messing around with the early, primitive toasters, in 1912, Otto Frederick Rohwedder began working on a machine to slice bread on a large enough scale so bakeries could use it. It took him a while due to some personal disasters, but in 1928 he sold his first machine to M.F. Bench’s Chillicothe Bakery of Missouri. The machine didn’t just slice the bread, it wrapped it as well. Chillicothe used the machine and marketed Kleen Maid Sliced Bread. So, the first sliced breads began emerging just about the same time as the first pop-up toasters. Perfect timing, if you ask me.
Continental Bakeries got into the action in 1930 and marketed that most famous of all sliced breads Wonder Bread, originally called “Wonder-Sliced Bread.” Wonder Bread had been introduced as a 1.5 pound wrapped loaf of white bread in 1920, by the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis, but five years later the firm was purchased by Continental of St. Louis, which made the brand a national phenomenon.
Rohwedder subsequently sold his patents and his bread machine company, and there are not any surviving examples of his machine today. His are still the standard, though.
There are lots of folks who collect toasters. Why not? Those old toasters are kind of awesome. Check out this video of the Toaster Collectors Convention.