In the beginning (or near enough), there was bread. But in the beginning there was no grocery store, baker, fridge or freezer, so a lot of this bread became stale. Probably at some point, somebody got fed up with stale bread and tossed a piece of it in the fire, or at least meant to. Instead, it landed nearby, browned in the glow of the flames, someone found it, bit into it, and voila: toast. A lot of early inventions must have sparked from such frustration.
The Egyptians generally get credit for leavened bread: the British Museum houses 5,000 year old Egyptian loaves, and King Tut was buried with a stalk of wheat, the symbol of Royalty. But Romans usually get the credit for toast. Whether they actually discovered that fire plus bread equals an entirely different savory golden-brown treat, or whether they just liked the idea and popularized it, is uncertain, but either way they took charge of the branding. “Tostum” is Latin for scorched, and toast was made by putting stale bread on a stone near fire, and later, on a wire frame over fire.
For the next several hundred years, toast and bread were—in a way that is hard to fathom in the era of gluten-free everything—a hot-button issue. While his subjects toasted brown bread in abundance, Caesar made the serving of brown bread to a Roman elite a crime punishable by prison time. Years went by, empires rose and fell, the toasting fork was invented, and bread remained central to Western culture. In the 17th century, bakers were so important in French society that George Sand declared their power was second only to the church. The French passion for bread was both patriotic and a little weird: “The French believed the baker’s oven to be the national womb,” writes Stewart Allen in In the Devil’s Garden, “and the baguette to be the penis.” An unmarried daughter was often told to sit atop a bread oven to make her appear more attractive to potential suitors.
But the French were not the only ones to find bread sexy. The Italians had a tradition of copulating in wheat fields in order to ensure pregnancy, hence the pregnancy slang, “she’s got a bun in the oven.” Meanwhile, in England, John Aubrey recorded the practice of making “cockle bread” thus: “Young wenches…get upon a table-board, and then gather up their knees and their coates with their hands as high as they can then they wabble to and fro with their buttocks as if they were kneading of dough with their arses.” Bread made from this dough was to be served to whoever the said wench had a crush on. After eating it, the gentleman in question would fall in love.
Passion for bread mixed with politics and produced the French Revolution: tired of the coarse rye and barley bread they were forced to buy, the peasants demanded the soft white wheat bread of the aristocrats. Throughout the 18th century there were riots, until a bread shortage led to massive protests and Marie Antoinette suggested perhaps the rioters focus their energies elsewhere: “Let them eat cake.” Instead of new breads, the peasants began to demand heads.
Bread was not the only food that the French peasants had to eat, and it was not just hunger that drove the bread riots. It was also a desire for what good bread represented: pleasure, comfort, and leisure—all luxuries unavailable to peasants.
When Toad of A Wind in the Willows goes to jail, he’s rescued from prison by the jailer’s daughter, who fortifies him for escape with piping hot tea and “very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb.” Toad, a properly tweedy English country gentleman despite his warts and webbed fingers, is deeply moved. The smell of toast and tea reminds him of “warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries”
To achieve this level of cozy domesticity in the century before the invention of electricity required a fire, some spare time, and a toasting fork. Though making toast in the 19th century sounds like a meditative activity—staring into flames and turning a fork in a cloud of buttery toast smell—the people doing the toasting quite often weren’t the people enjoying the toast. As anyone who’s seen Downton Abbey knows, there was a very clear distinction between the class that made their own toast, and the class that enjoyed toast made by servants. A wealthy owner of a country estate, like Toad or the Earl of Grantham, would not have made his own toast unless it amused him.
Before electricity made the toaster possible, the toast-makers of the world were in a continuous struggle to make toasting easier: first the hot stone, then the wire frame, then the toasting fork. But after the toasting fork, there didn’t seem to be anywhere to go. As Thomas George Harold of Brooklyn stated in his 1865 patent for a new and improved toasting fork design: “various devices have heretofore been made for toasting bread, broiling meat, &c, all of which have been more or less costly to manufacture and unhandy to operate.”
A look through patent records gives the impression that the toasting fork was the iPhone App of the Victorian Age: everyone wanted to invent the next best one. There were three-pronged and two-pronged forks, forks with small trays below the prongs to keep the toast from falling in the fire, and forks with racks instead of prongs so that more than one piece of toast could be made at once. There was even, for the toast-lover on the go, the “telescopic toasting fork,” which was pocket-sized when unneeded but which slid out of its own handle (like a radio antenna) when a sudden need for toast arose.
Given this mania for the next best toasting fork—not to mention our historic obsession with bread—it’s not so surprising that the toaster was the first household electrical appliance to appear once electricity was invented, second only to the lamp. Victorians’ priorities: (1) light, (2) toast.
Unfortunately the first toaster, introduced in 1893 by the British Crompton and Company, wasn’t actually very good. It was a dangerous appliance, with all its wiring on the outside, and it only toasted one side of the bread at a time.
But improvements came fast and thick, in a slew of new patents, and by 1920 the first pop-up toaster with a timer was introduced by a Minnesotan named Charles Strite, who had long been bemoaning the burnt toast in his company cafeteria and decided to do something about it. Sliced bread followed shortly after, in 1928, and toaster sales boomed.
Toaster patents mostly came from Great Britain and America, where the European love of toast had taken root and flourished even as stale bread became an easily preventable issue. In Britain it was integral to both tea time and breakfast. Though they did not adopt tea-time, the necessity of toast at breakfast was a preference that the first British in America did bring with them, and today egg dishes at restaurants across the country still invariably come with toast. Endless variations flew back and forth between the continents: toast with butter, toast with jam, beans on toast, peanut butter toast, cheese toast, Texas toast, egg and soldiers, toad-in-a-hole…
Today, seventy-five million Americans eat toast every day, and, according to a staggering Harris Survey, ten percent of them would rather eat toast in the morning than have sex. Husbands, wives and lovers apparently take a backseat to toast in the wee hours.
Yet we don’t really need to toast bread anywhere, since stale bread is a non-issue for anyone with a freezer. Gwyneth Paltrow is always telling us how bad bread is for us anyway. And toast is no longer a sign of unattainable privilege; in fact it’s generally the cheapest of edible indulgences. So why this continued obsession? Perhaps, as Margaret Atwood wrote in Oryx and Crake, “toast cannot be explained by any rational means.” So few of our obsessions can.
Baker’s oven image via.
Mary Mann writes a column on dead essayists for Bookslut, among other things.