Toaster Museum Graphic


History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the plowed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of kings' bastards but cannot tell us the origin of wheat.

This is the way of human folly.

-- Henry Fabre

About 6,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians developed breads as we know them today. They discovered that if they let their bread dough sit out in Egypt's nice, warm climate, it would puff up, and if they baked this dough 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.

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.

Hearth Toaster from the Walter Himmelreicht collection, Pennsylvania, c. 1800. Bread was placed between the arches; when one side was browned, the toaster was rotated to brown the other side.

Photo courtesy
The History Net.

As America became electrified in the late 1800's, there was great competition among inventors, industrialists and others to put this newly controlled power to work. Men like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse built electric generating stations. Edison touted Direct Current (DC), Nikola Tesla & Westinghouse saw Alternating Current (AC) as the future, and a "Battle of the Currents" ensued. This battle hindered a bit the development of electrical devices and appliances as different parts of the country had different power sources. Nonetheless, the electrical industry forged ahead and at the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition held in Chicago an electric kitchen was featured. The kitchen included an electric grill, coffee pot, chafing dish and other appliances - but no toaster.

Something special was required before the electric toaster could exist, and several years would pass before it would be discovered. For this reason the toaster was a latecomer in the electric appliance field, but because it didn't have any singularly successful design in pre-electric times, as the coffee pot or the clothes iron did, when toasters began being manufactured they took on dozens of forms, went through many evolutions and, before 1960 at least, were sculptural showpieces that had a place of honor in the home.

This museum is devoted mainly to North American electric toasters.
Copyright © Eric Norcross, 1997

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