Who Killed the Great American Toaster?

toaster.jpgThe New York Times Magazine's Food and Drink issue has a short piece from Julie Lasky, editor of Change Observer and the former editor of the late lamented I.D. Industrial Design Magazine, for which I'd written on great but obscure inventors. When she called me about toaster technology while researching the piece, I was happier than ever that I had stayed with my decades-old Sunbeam T-20, a model so great it has its own website:


The original Sunbeam T-20 cost more than $22.50 when it was introduced in 1949, about a third of a week's wages for the average family. The dark age of the toaster began when consumers started choosing price over functionality, particularly during the 1980s. The market is now glutted with machines that toast unevenly and retail for less than $10. "Mind you," [the vintage appliance dealer Michael] Sheafe added, "that's what they're worth."
Sunbeam had weathered the Great Depression. In fact it had introduced its signature products then, including the Mixmaster (the brainchild of its in-house design director Ivar Jepson), the Coffeemaster, and the T-20's predecessor, the T-9 Toaster (the work of the famed Raymond Loewy).  (I've already written about 1930s food preparation technology here and about Chicago manufacturing here.)

The 1980s were the beginning of the end for the T-20 on the corporate level, as production in Chicago ceased after Sunbeam was sold in the merger and acquisition boom. Sunbeam had been a great Chicago manufacturer with roots in the Stockyards and sheep shearing. It may have lost much of its culture with its move to Florida. I've found no smoking bagel, but the demise of the model's successor in 1997 points to the advent of the self-anointed "Rambo in Pinstripes," Chainsaw Al Dunlap as CEO in 1996.

Many classic Sunbeam products are still sold on eBay and other sites, and information is available on the web. And of course there are other high-quality appliance manufacturers left in the U.S. and Europe. It's easy to blame the Chainsaw Als of the world. While nobody would describe the toaster as a green appliance, replacing items like this as seldom as possible has obvious environmental benefits. Not all 1950s mentalities are worth reviving, and not all 1950s products were so solid, but it's worth adding durability to green criteria.

(A friend just wrote to ask me what's the best toaster now.  I haven't tried any current model, but according to one review aggregator site, the top-rated high-end model is by the originally Australian company Breville. It was another of those Depression-born brands, founded in 1932 to manufacture radios.)
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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