The technological history of turning our bread into toast
Your kitchen may not have a six-burner stove. It might lack the latest dishwasher. You might wish you had a sweet espresso machine, food dehydrator or panini press. Odds are very good though that, like 95 percent of American kitchens, you’ve got some kind of toaster. You might not be thrilled at the prospect of toast, but for around 2,000 years, roasted bread has been a bit of a staple in Western diets. Toast has held political significance, influenced our language, and helped lead the electrification of domestic spaces. So you might be getting by without that fancy ovens, but your ancestors would likely raise an eyebrow if you thought about abandoning your toaster.
Saving the stale bread
Toasting bread may have gotten its start back ancient Egypt, but we definitely know it was a bit of a hit with ancient Romans, who gave us the word tostum, meaning “scorched.” While many people find the crispy, roasted flavor of toast to be very appealing, the original motivation was to make stale bread more palatable. This kind of utility made it a huge hit with the general population, which of course made it unattractive to Rome’s elites, who were not to be served darkened bread under penalty of law. The Romans that weren’t too snobby to eat scorched bread usually cooked it near a fire, or in simple wire cages, an idea that would eventually push a bit of a tech boom in people’s kitchens.
Innovation in toasting implements
It took a long time for toasting bread to see much innovation, but in the 17th century, people were likely to roast their bread with a dedicated toasting fork. These forks had long handles and usually only two tines to hold one’s bread, but the popularity of reroasting your bread meant there was plenty of room for improvement. In the 18th century, Europeans had many options, bells and whistles to choose from in their toasting forks, including additional tines, crumb-catching trays and even telescopic handles for toasting on the go. These innovations were clearly significant, but they paled compared to the 19th century, when toast-makers could ditch the fork and the fire altogether.
In 1893, hot on the heels of electric indoor lighting, came the first electric toaster. This toaster wasn’t a great experience for early adopters though, as it could only cook bread on one side, and was prone to overheating and becoming a fire hazard. Fortunately, by the time more households actually had access to electricity, a safer electric toaster had been developed. Similar to the waves of innovation in toasting forks in the 18th century, 20th century toasters saw rapid innovation, adding automated toast turners for even cooking, automatic shut-off switches, and of course 1919’s spring-loaded pop-up toaster design that’s still with us today.
From old bread to easy breakfast
The next great leap in toast came not from the machines, but from the bread. In 1927, pre-sliced bread finally came to market. While the convenience of uniform, sliced bread was obvious to many, the problem was that slicing it before it was meant to be eaten would make it go stale too quickly, and not every slice was intended to be revived through toasting. Wrapping the bread in wax paper immediately after slicing solved that, but the lack of stale bread didn’t hurt toast’s popularity in the slightest. Instead, it became that much more convenient to pop some bread into the toaster in the morning, although some people still invest in their toast-making to really luxuriate in the delightful taste and texture of twice-cooked bread.
Source: A Brief History of Toast by Mary Mann, the Toast