Downton Abbey fans might remember a humorous moment early in this season, when Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper, brings home an electric toaster. She plugs the contraption into a socket in her room and proceeds to happily burn her first piece of bread in the pursuit of toast.
Carson, the head butler, distrusts this electric toaster as much as he distrusted the telephone when it first came to Downton, but the electric toaster provided a convenience that was part of the modern era. A pamphlet in the collection of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula describes how one could make toast right at the breakfast table instead of standing over the stove — “Crisp hot toast made before your eyes. On the dining room table — or where there is an electric light outlet — just as you like it.”
This advertisement for the GE Radiant Toaster was printed sometime between 1908 and 1917, just as the first successful electric toasters were coming onto the market. Missoulians may have been as excited as Mrs. Hughes about trying these new contraptions, and after 1908, they had ready access to the electricity necessary to power the devices, too.
While electricity had been in Missoula since the late 19th century, it took the construction of the Milltown (formerly Clark) Dam in 1905-08 to provide the city with reliable power for its street cars, street lights and, of course, toasters.
The toasters in the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula’s collection date from the 1920s and 30s, when most urban homes had reliable power and many different companies were manufacturing toasters for home use.
Though the design has changed, the mechanism for toasting bread has remained remarkably consistent over the years. Electric current heats coils of metal wire, which turn your bread a toasty brown (while “not drying it hard as a bone,” as the Radiant Toaster ad boasted).
For most of the ‘teens and ’20s, electric toasters looked like this:
Place the bread in the little door, close, then toast until done. This is the Marion Giant Flipflop, called such because you “flipflopped” the bread once one side was toasted to get the other side done. These models don’t appear to have an on/off switch – you had to unplug the machine to turn it off – which must have made life more interesting!