It is easy to take for granted many of today’s most common household tools and appliances. A variety of concepts that seem simple to us now, however, actually came about via a great deal of ingenuity and perseverance, coupled with excellent timing and business sense.
The automatic toaster is one such example. This appliance has been standard in American households for nearly a century, thanks to the clever invention that Charles P. Strite patented in 1921.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Strite went to work in a manufacturing plant in Stillwater, Minn., during the war effort surrounding World War I. In 1919, after observing that much of the toast served in the cafeteria was burned, he began working on a machine that would toast bread automatically and stop heating after the toast was ready, requiring no human intervention.
At the time, toasters were imperfect but they did exist. People have been toasting bread for thousands of years; for the most part they have done so by holding sliced bread over an open fire. The first electric toasters began to appear after electricity made its way into the average American household in the late 1800s. A British firm is said to have manufactured an electric toaster in the mid-1890s, but the machine was not terribly fire-safe. Then, at the turn of the century, a type of wire was invented that could reach very high temperatures without posing a fire hazard or becoming damaged. Shortly thereafter, an employee of the American Electric Heater Company applied for a patent on an electric bread toaster that used this wire as its heating element.
Other versions soon followed from people and companies trying to improve on the concept, including General Electric, which developed the first commercially successful toaster, the D-12, in 1909. Even this toaster had its drawbacks, however. It toasted bread one side at a time and had to be watched constantly to be sure it did not overheat the bread.
Strite’s version employed heating elements that could toast both sides of a slice of bread at the same time. It also included a timer that turned off the electricity and a spring that ejected, or “popped up,” the toast when the electricity shut off. He received U.S. patent No. 1,394,450 for his device, which became known as “the Toastmaster.” With financial backing he formed the Waters Genter company and began selling the devices to restaurants; a consumer version was made available to the public in 1926. This version allowed for the user to adjust darkness by moving a lever on the side of the toaster.
Strite’s company, which became Toastmaster, Inc., produced at least six different consumer models, with sleek, nickel-plated designs that appealed to thousands of customers; the company flourished and diversified; it was acquired in 1999 by Salton, Inc.
Toasters became more and more popular over the next several decades, with more than 1 million sold annually by 1930. Bakeries, at the same time, began to sell more pre-sliced bread, and toasters became affordable enough that virtually everyone could afford one. By the 1960s automatic toasters had become a staple in the American kitchen and most are made today with the same basic design that Strite created decades ago.