The kitchen appliance voted most popular, year after year, is in virtually every western household. It is the humble toaster.

Early civilisations would toast bread over an open fire to prevent it from growing mould. The Romans brought the idea to England when they invaded in 44AD. Toasting was a very common way of cooking in Roman times; the word toast comes from "tostum", Latin for scorching or burning.

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During the 15th and 16th centuries, people fashioned long-handled forks made of brass, iron or simple wire. They impaled bread on such tools and held them over fires to toast. These forks then hung in the inglenook, by the fire, for convenience.

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Museum Notebook
Museum Notebook

In 1893 a Scotsman, Alan McMasters invented the first electric toaster. Titled the "Eclipse Toaster", it toasted only one side of the bread, so bread was flipped over manually. The wire filaments, however, often broke, due to the high heat. In 1905, Albert Marsh created a filament wire of nickel and chromium, which he called nichrome. This could withstand high temperatures and could be shaped into loops or strips. Within months, other manufacturers were making toasters with this product.

In 1915, General Electric received the first patent for an electric toaster. This was a bare wire skeleton with a rack for the bread. A single exposed heating element (nickel wire woven through sheets of mica) toasted the bread. Temperatures could not be controlled, and the bread had to be turned manually.

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Early in the 20th century the flip-top toaster appeared. It had a side panel that could be lowered for insertion and turning of the bread.

These early toasters did not have any type of sensor so had to be constantly monitored. In 1919, Charles Strite developed a toaster with a timer and a spring, which would release when the timer turned off. The first pop-up toaster was invented.

It is interesting to know that the first bread slicing machines did not appear until 1928. Before then people had to slice bread by hand.

There were few changes in the electrical parts of toasters until the 1950s when microchip was inserted to gauge the moisture in the bread and to determine the precise heating time for different types of breads.

The museum collection has three very different toasters.

Turnover toaster.
Turnover toaster.

The earliest is a "Double Action Electric Toaster" patented in 1923 by Double Action Electric Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is made of chrome and has two wooden handles on front and back. One side has wooden handle attached to two slide out sections onto which bread is placed, and then inserted into toaster.

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The next is a "Turnover Toaster" brand. It has a chrome steel body with fold-down sides that hold pieces of bread against the elements. The sides have springs to keep them closed. The toaster sits on four cylindrical Bakelite feet and there are connector pins for an electric cord at one end.

The latest toaster is an ABEC pop-up from the late 1950s. It has a square chrome body with two openings in top, a manual toast pop-up lever at one end and sits on two wooden feet. It has an art deco style logo on front and back and the workings are all hidden.

The design of toasters scarcely changed since the 1950s. Today's toasters still use the nichrome filaments that Albert Marsh patented in 1905. They also still use springs and levers.

Today, however, toasters often have all kinds of extra bells and whistles. One toaster will allow you to singe your own selfie onto a slice of toast. Some have a viewing window or an alarm to tell you when your toast is the perfect shade of brown.

Double action electric toaster.
Double action electric toaster.

As you have your morning toast, throw your pre-sliced bread into your automatic toaster, and give a quick toast to these quick toast innovators!

•Kathy Greensides is the collection assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum