The History of Toasters, From Roman Times to Today

A toaster and bread box on a sunny kitchen counter

Getty Images / Chesh / Alamy Stock Photo

Toasting began as a method of prolonging the life of bread. It was initially toasted over open fires with tools to hold it in place until it was properly browned. Toasting was a very common activity in Roman times; "tostum" is the Latin word for scorching or burning. As the Romans traveled throughout Europe vanquishing their foes in early times, it’s said that they took their toasted bread right along with them. The British developed a fondness for the Romans' toast and introduced it in the Americas when they crossed the ocean.

The First Electric Toasters

The first commercially available toaster was sold in 1909 in the U.S., when Frank Shailor patented his idea for the “D-12” toaster. General Electric ran with the idea and introduced it for use in the home. Unfortunately, it only toasted one side of the bread at a time and it required that someone stand by to manually turn it off when the toast looked done.

Westinghouse followed with its own version of a toaster in 1914, and the Copeman Electric Stove Company added an “automatic bread turner” to its toaster in 1915. Charles Strite invented the modern timed pop-up toaster in 1919. Today, the toaster is the most common household appliance although it’s only been in existence in the U.S. a little over 100 years.

An unusual online museum is dedicated to the toaster, with lots of photos and historical information.

For several years, an Internet hoax claimed that the "real" inventor of the toaster was a Scottish inventor by the name of Alan MacMasters. In 2022, an investigation revealed that the purported piece of history was a prank, originating from a false Wikipedia entry posted in 2012.

Otto Frederick Rohwedder and Sliced Bread

Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the bread slicer. He first began working on it in 1912 when he came up with the idea of a device that would hold the slices together with hat pins. This was not a resounding success. In 1928, he went on to design a machine that sliced and wrapped the bread to prevent it from going stale. The Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri started selling "Kleen Maid Sliced Bread" on July 7, 1928, possibly the first sliced bread sold commercially. Pre-sliced bread was further popularized by Wonder Bread in 1930, helping to spread the toaster's popularity even further.

The Sandwich

Long before Rohwedder figured out how to efficiently slice bread and before Shailor patented the first American toaster, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, originated the name “sandwich” in the 18th century. Montagu was a British politician who served as secretary of state and first lord of the Admiralty. He presided at the Admiralty during the British defeats of the American Revolution, and he was notoriously unpopular for his charges of obscenity against John Wilkes. He loved to eat beef between slices of bread. His "sandwich" allowed the Earl to leave one hand free for card playing. Hawaii's Sandwich Islands are rumored to have been named after him by Captain James Cook in 1778.

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Toasters, From Roman Times to Today." ThoughtCo, Nov. 21, 2022, Bellis, Mary. (2022, November 21). The History of Toasters, From Roman Times to Today. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Toasters, From Roman Times to Today." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).