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A Brief Independence

An Enduring Brandname

By Eric Norcross
Copyright © 1999

Over the years a product's success can lead to its brandname becoming a part of our everyday vocabulary. When we say Jell-O, we mean gelatin (or, more likely, a sweet, gelatinized side-dish); when we want a facial tissue we ask for a Kleenex; and the use of "Xerox" to refer to a photocopy is so widespread that lower-case "xerox" is in the dictionary meaning just that.

A company's growth can lead it to develop products much different from those that gave it its original identity, and the brandname can come to stand for quality rather than a specific product (although sometimes it can lead to some amusing oxymorons, as in one of our daily-use appliances, a Frigidaire oven). One such brandname is Hotpoint, which had its beginning with a single product in 1905 but by 1913 came to be, according to their advertising literature, "the largest exclusive manufacturers of electrically heated household appliances in the world." Hotpoint's origin is well told by Earl Lifshey writing in The Housewares Story:

[T]he development of the entire electric appliance business was seriously handicapped by a problem which was in no way the fault of the manufacturers: the scarcity of electric power. What was even worse, almost all the power companies - they would not be referred to as utilities until later - thought of electricity only in terms of lighting.

"Load building" was unnecessary and had not even been considered. Only a very few of the largest power companies supplied electricity during daylight hours when women usually did their laundry.

Earl Richardson But in 1903 at least one utility man had been thinking about this problem. He was Earl Richardson, plant superintendent of the power company in Ontario, California. Part of his duties included reading meters in the homes they served, and he frequently talked to homemakers about the idea of an electric iron. Few housewives wanted any part of the heavy, cumbersome irons they had seen.

Richardson's interest was twofold. For several years he himself had been experimenting with an iron. Also, if women began to use electric irons the demand for electricity would be increased, and then perhaps the power company could operate around the clock.

He went to work refining his earlier model, making it smaller and lighter. It had a glowing resistance wire wrapped around a large brass core which absorbed the heat and conducted it to the base of the iron.

Several dozen samples were made up and distributed to power company customers to try. He then convinced his management to generate electricity all day on Tuesdays so the customers could use the irons. They were a great success, and the demand grew so fast that the following year he left the power company and, with outside financial backing, formed the Pacific Electric Heating Company with four employees to manufacture electric laundry irons.

Then he ran into trouble; the expected demand for the new iron failed to materialize, and a lot of complaints came in from unhappy users. Yes, they conceded, Richardson's iron was better than the others they'd seen; but it had one major fault - it overheated in the center. When he asked his wife about it, she suggested he make an iron with more heat in the point, where it was needed to press around buttonholes, ruffles, pleats, and so on. He did just that, developing a new iron in which heating elements converged at the tip. In 1905 he again placed samples with homemakers he knew.

When he came back a week later none wanted to part with "the iron with the hot point." That was it! He had found the formula for success and a name. That year he made and sold under the new "Hotpoint" trademark more electric irons than any other company in America.

It wasn't long before the Pacific Electric Heating Company began making other appliances for the home.

El Tosto Numero Uno?

The General Electric D-12 is generally touted as being the first commercially successful electric toaster made in America - but was it? A Hotpoint appliance ad from 1917 which ran in the Saturday Evening Post claims:

The First Electrical Bread Toaster a "Hotpoint."
Perhaps you didn't know that the very first toaster made was a Hotpoint. That was 12 years ago.

Twelve years before 1917 is 1905 - the year Albert Marsh developed the Nichrome wire which made the electric toaster possible. The El Tosto was manufactured under the Pacific Electric Heating name and, later, as a Hotpoint appliance when Pacific Electric changed its name to Hotpoint Electric because of the good brandname recognition. As the El Tosto has no known patent coverage, it is certainly possible that it was in production before the D-12. With such a great name, I root for the El Tosto to be America's first electric toaster.

Why the "El?"

Hotpoint eventually made more than a dozen "El" appliances that included, in addition to the El Tosto, the El Perco coffee percolator, the El Comfo aluminum hot-pad, the El Bako table-top oven, the El Eggo egg cooking machine, and more.

Other than the marketing department simply having fun, my best guess as to why Hotpoint used such names is that, because the company had its headquarters in California, those names reflect the influence of Spanish/Mexican culture in that state.

Consumed.

Parallels can be drawn between the electrical appliance industry in the early part of this century and the personal computer industry as it has grown since around 1980 - lots of early innovation and experimentation with many small companies springing up to be slowly consumed/merged/put out of business by the more dominant manufacturers.

Model 159T25 By the late teens, Hotpoint had been taken over by Edison/General Electric and went from being an independent company to a brandname. General Electric, which had stopped making toasters after an experimental model that followed the D-12, was back in the small appliance business full force with the Hotpoint line-up. Hotpoint toasters of the 1920s and '30s were beautifully styled, reflecting movements in architecture and design like American Beaux Arts (from the curvilinear motifs to the more starkly geometric design of the model shown here to the left) and Art Deco (as in the Hotpoint "Gazelle").

One of the most successful Hotpoint toasters was the "De Luxe," designed by Charles P. Randolf and manufactured for at least a decade from 1923 to 1933 (model #115T17, nickel-plated 1923 to late 20s, model #117T17, chrome-plated thereafter). In 1932 the price of the De Luxe was lowered from $8.50 to $5.95 and it was advertised as follows:

gleaming
chromeplate finish
that lasts indefinitely
and never tarnishes

115T17

Here is 1932's greatest value in toasters...and it's easy to see why! Graceful design...an ornament to any table...gleaming chromeplate finish that never tarnishes...Cool, Calmold turn knobs to raise and lower the sides, automatically turning the toast...Double capacity, toasts two large size slices at a time...And the finest of all heating elements: the same India mica core that we put into our most expensive models.

This is surely a toaster you can be delighted to own - especially at the new low price. Your electrical dealer has it, and will gladly show it to you. Wouldn't it be nice to use one at tomorrow's breakfast!

The Hotpoint brandname eventually went from representing small appliances to being on big ones and, with its beginnings as the "iron with the hot point" that could get into the ruffles and pleats of clothing, today we enjoy the incongruity of keeping things cold in a Hotpoint refrigerator.



More on El Tosto and the search for the first electric toaster

In the above article we speculated that the El Tosto made by Hotpoint (initially the Pacific Electric Heating Co.) might have been the first electric toaster manufactured in the United States. We assumed that this early toaster, mentioned in Hotpoint's advertising literature, was the well known upright El Tosto. We have since learned of an early flatbed toaster produced by the Pacific Electric Heating Co. that also carried the El Tosto moniker - and this was advertised as early as 1908*

Hotpoint was fond enough of the El Tosto name to put it on a third toaster which later shed the name and just became model 114T5.

And so the earliest electric American toaster known is ... (drum roll) ... something made by SIMPLEX Electric Heating Co.! Yes, that's correct - we recently acquired an April 1904 product catalog put out by the Simplex company that depicts many electric appliances - including toasters.

*Information and illustration of the flatbed El Tosto courtesy of A Toast To You newsletter

 


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