Old kitchen toasters fast becoming hot collectibles


April 05, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Old toasters are popping up all over. Still relatively cheap, collectible toasters are not just for the upper crust.

"I like their mechanics, their variety, their ingenuity and their style," said James A. Barker, an antiques and collectibles dealer in Hawley, Pa., who virtually has cornered the market. "I call them my monuments to the breakfast table." He buys and sells nationwide, often by phone and mail; some of the best models wind up in his personal collection.

Joe Lukach, an architect in Arvada, Col., was an early bird: he began collecting toasters in 1972. With over 1,000, he's now trading his duplicates with European collectors.

When electric trains became too expensive, William Blakeslee, an air pollution control consultant in Ambler, Pa., switched to collecting toasters, accumulating more than 500. He's hooked because, like trains, they're easy to display on a shelf and are mechanical.

Pyramid shaped flipflop models from the 1920s to '40s sell at antiques malls in New England and the South for $20 and up. Pop-up models are particularly popular on the West Coast; Deluxe Junk in Seattle serves-up old shiny chrome Toastmasters with rounded edges and black Bakelite trim in the $25 to $35 range. In San Francisco, dealer Jack Beeler at Decorum has several models in stock, including a 1939 Sunbeam for $95. The Marin City Flea Market in Sausalito is a good hunting ground, Mr. Beeler says; there's even an electric outlet to test them out. Generally unused toasters in their original boxes bring a premium.

An endless variety of mechanical toasters was produced, many designs reflecting Rube Goldberg-like ingenuity.

"Some open like a clam shell, others incorporate conveyor belts, some swing out by pulling a knob or turning a crank, others pull out like a drawer and or flip when you press a button," said Mr. Barker, "but my favorite has two reflectors that look like satellite dishes."

Some toastermasters are specialists. "I collect only porcelain electric toasters," said Alex Shear of New York City, "They were made when small appliances aspired to art." Porcelain was a good insulator but inappropriate for toasters; notes Mr. Shear: "Drop it and it's gone."

Hold on tight. Last year Virginia Caputo, a toaster collector and dealer in Lancaster, Pa., paid $2,200 for a blue willow pattern porcelain Toastrite model at Tony Nard's auction in Owego, N.Y. Made by Pan Electric of Cleveland, circa 1927-1930, it sold for $9.50 new and has a vertical heating element with two grooves on either side for the bread, which must be turned by hand. Rare Toastrites include a pink willow pattern and solid color ones in iridescent blue, white, orange, yellow or green.

Next year will mark the centennial of the first electric kitchen, exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which had an electric chafing dish, water kettle, iron and skillet -- but no toaster, according to Mr. Barker. The popularization of small appliances with electric heating elements was made possible by the invention of resistance wire and the availability of electricity in homes.

Shortly after the turn of the century, Earl Richardson, superintendent of the Ontario Power Co. of Calif., convinced management to keep generators running all day on Tuesdays so consumers would buy and use an electric iron he invented. (Before then electricity was available only to the wealthy at night to power light bulbs.) Power plants in other locales followed quickly, making 24-hour electricity common wherever there was a power line.

By 1908 Mr. Richardson introduced an electric toaster, the horizontal El Toasto, resembling a small grill on four feet. (Many old models had 6-foot-long cords because until the 1930s, rooms generally had only one electric source, a ceiling fixture with two sockets: one for the bulb, the other for a single outlet.)

The first mass marketed vertical toaster was the 1909 General Electric model D-12, featuring a white porcelain base, a wire body to hold a slice of bread on each side of an exposed heating element, and a removable toast warming rack on top. New it sold for $4.50, or 50 cents more decorated with painted garlands. Today they bring $900-$1,100 with garlands, $200-$300 undecorated.

Mechanic Charles Strite of Stillwater, Minn., invented the first pop-up automatic toaster for restaurant use just after World War I. By 1926 one was widely available for home use, the single slice Toastmaster 1A1 with light-dark controls, now the keystone to any toaster collection. While common, they're hard to find in good condition. Mr. Barker mastered the art of toaster repair andC sells reassembled 1A1s for $80-$125.

"If you collect old toasters -- I think they should work and should be clean. Condition is everything," Mr. Barker contends. "If I didn't mind rust I could have a collection of thousands."

Collectors feast on unusual models by little-known manufacturers. Mr. Barker says during the Teens and '20s "everybody tried making toasters, and some companies lasted less than six months." By 1929 more than 50 firms produced them, the result of a "Toast for Breakfast" advertising campaign waged by bread companies against cereal manufacturers. Mr. Barker has a larder full of old toaster advertisements, brochures and boxes.

The early 1930s brought forth some of the classiest toasters ever, streamlined designs mounted on black Bakelite bases, their heating elements concealed behind shiny chromed metal, sometimes decorated with art deco images of skyscrapers or leaping gazelles. In 1989 Detroit dealer Jacques-Pierre Caussin sold for $4,500 a modernistic one-slice toaster with windows on each side, created in 1933 by noted industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss.

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