Toaster museum? Kitchen nostalgia pops up everywhere

Eric Norcross didn't think he would ever be an authority on toast.

One day the art history buff was grumbling to friends about the flaky state of restaurant toast ("It's too cold, it's overdone, it's underdone," he says). The next, he owned more than 700 toasters and was trying to establish a museum dedicated to the art of browning bread.

Somewhere along the way, he became a font of toast trivia. Who were the first people to make toast? The Egyptians, around 4,000 B.C. Where does the word toast come from? The Latin "tostum," meaning to scorch or burn.

"Sometimes it's kind of embarrassing being labeled the toaster guy," he says.

But Norcross' modesty belies the enthusiasm he shows for the lowly household appliance. When the Charlottesville museum opens in their Belmont home he's hoping for next spring– Norcross says it will be the second incarnation of a novelty that attracted worldwide attention in Seattle nearly 10 years ago.

Although Norcross says he doesn't know how the idea "popped" into his head (one has to excuse his temptation for puns), the collection began growing when he opened a toast-your-own-bread café in Seattle in 1988. Similar to the make-your-own-sandwich and grill-your-own-burger restaurants common in Seattle and other fashionable spots, the café allowed patrons to toast and top their own slices of bread– making a perfect piece of toast every time.

The café was a hit, and before he knew it, Norcross had a sizable array of well-worn toasters– most gleaned from garage sales and antique markets– and a wife, Kelly, who came in for a slice one day and burned her finger on an old Toast-O-Lator.

The pair continued to hunt for unique toasters, until they had more than they could squeeze into the café.

"Once your brain is tuned in to looking for an object, you start noticing it in all sorts of different spots," says Norcross, 40. "We'd come across toasters that we had never seen before, didn't know existed, weren't sure how they worked, who made them."

Those discoveries sent Norcross and his wife on a treasure hunt for toaster lore, much of which they now post on a website.

They lost the café space at the end of 1990, then opened an art gallery and studio the next year. As at the café, the toasters became the drawing card.

The gallery lasted for just a year– the Norcrosses lost their lease again in 1994– but it attracted attention. National Public Radio did a piece on it, as did Forbes magazine, the BBC, and television stations in Canada and Japan.

At first, Norcross says, he and Kelly looked for varieties of the classic pop-up toaster– and those were mostly all they found. But over the years, the collection began to span the evolution of toaster design.

The first toaster came along around 1909, though there are conflicting claims as to who was actually the first. Inventors at three different companies– General Electric, Simplex, and Pacific Electric Heating Co.– all applied for patents at about the same time for very similar-looking inventions, Norcross says.

Most of these early toasters were nothing more than wire racks leaning against heating coils. Norcross says one person usually had the job of flipping the wire racks at the breakfast table so both sides of the bread could be toasted.

From that point, he says, innovation really started to kick in. "You had side-loaders, you had top-loaders," he says. "Since you could toast a piece of bread in any way... you had lots of companies trying lots of different things."

One design from 1917, the Armstrong Table Stove, allowed a person to fix an entire breakfast– eggs, bacon and toast– simultaneously in three stacked compartments. Another model from the late '20s by Universal, "The Sweetheart Toaster," featured heart-shaped wire racks that could be flipped by pushing a button.

The automatic "pop-up" mechanism in today's toasters was invented in 1919 by Charles Strite, a man who Norcross says was tired of eating burnt toast at his company cantina. It took seven more years, though, for the first commercial pop-up toaster to appear on the market. The Toastmaster was smaller than many manual models, but more expensive– $13-14 on average, compared with $1 for the cheapest manuals.

Then came the Great Depression, which changed everything. Many smaller manufacturers were put out of business, and innovation gave way to streamlining. Toastmaster, Sunbeam, and Universal survived, and as a result, so did their simple, top-loading, pop-up designs.

Norcross says manufacturers now focused more on perfecting quality, which is why many toasters made in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s can still be found in kitchens today.

"This is where we get the cliché of a toaster as a wedding gift," Norcross says. "Back then it was a good gift and was meant to last."

The mentality changed in the 1970s, when operations moved overseas and companies expanded production of their other appliances. The toaster stopped being something you bought once in your lifetime and became a product you were expected to replace every few years, Norcross says.

Norcross is not a fan of commercialization. His love for his older toasters is as palpable as his disdain for collection competitors on websites such as eBay. Norcross says all of this takes the purity out of the pursuit of discovery.

About four years ago, the Norcrosses relocated to Charlottesville– like Seattle, a city known for its trendy cafés– and stored their toasters in the basement of the home they are now renovating. They plan to convert the basement into the museum, and in keeping with their reverence for the toaster, intend to make the museum a nonprofit organization.

The toaster museum is appropriate today because of the current trend toward nostalgic kitchen appliances, says Michael J. Morecroft, CEO and president of Hamilton Beach Protor-Silex. And Mark Shore, director of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tourism Bureau, says the city of Thomas Jefferson is an appropriate spot for the Norcrosses' museum, noting that Jefferson was "very interested in architectural design."

Norcross says the most important thing is seeing people come into the museum who probably wouldn't ordinarily visit a gallery. "It started out as something fun to do," Norcross says. "If we're not making any money from it, maybe this exposure is good enough."

For Norcross, this is the side he evidently wants his bread buttered on.

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Eric Norcross

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO