Kitchen collectibles: Collecting vintage toasters

In 1967 I was working for the Washington State Library, transporting books among a score of libraries in five counties in southwest Washington. I would drive the route twice a week and stop for lunch along the route to snoop around thrift shops.

Along the route I had been eyeing a closed junk store. It was empty; an old locked-up garage was nearby. I would stop from time to time and peer through the very dusty window of the garage and see it full of stuff, including an old Sunbeam toaster, but no one was ever around.

One day, as I drove past, I could see the doors were open and I circled back to investigate. Two elderly ladies were there to sell everything, and for $9, I bought a dusty Sunbeam toaster, in very good shape. It required some cleaning, but it’s served me well for 40 years.

In 1998, after quitting corporate life, I wasn’t sure what I would do next. I decided to start a little business selling refurbished old toasters at local flea markets. My idea was to sell a good working two-slice, pop-up automatic toaster. Anything after the 1960s seemed pretty junky, so I picked the late 1940s Toastmaster to refurbish because that model was plentiful and cost about ten bucks to acquire. I had no experience but I just started taking them apart to see how they worked and whether or not I could fix them. I wrecked a few along the way, but with generous help from toaster veterans, I learned how to get them back in tip top shape. I discovered which models are worth spending half a day or more working on, and which ones are not.

Within a year, a toaster collector called on me, wanting to sell a collection which included some of the old “flopper” style manual toasters that toast only one side the slice at a time. I bought the collection, cleaned up the old floppers and took them to market, too, and they turned out to be very popular. So, I now offer that style, and nearly all types of toasters, even non-electric ones at Toaster Central.

Why do I spend a day, taking apart one of these old toasters? For the satisfaction of seeing it back together, working properly, shined up and ready for another few decades of service. And because of all the interesting people I’ve met at flea markets. I get a kick out of peoples’ reactions which range from scorn to fascination.

I’ve sold toasters and appliances to people all over the world, including Italy and Japan. In Japan, people can actually use them since their current is the same as in the United States. The Italians can’t use them, but are attracted by the designs and just want to look at them. I even sold a waffle iron to the American Embassy in Beijing.

My favorites to work on are Toastmasters, because of the quality of design and construction. The company started out in Minneapolis, and several years ago I set out to learn more about the inventor of the automatic pop-up toaster, Charles Strite. I arranged a rendezvous with one of Strite’s granddaughters. I learned the family history, went to see the home the Strite family lived in during the 1930s, and even found what was then a boarding house where he’d lived.

Over the 10 years I’ve been in business, I’ve expanded into offering waffle irons, electric egg cookers, and electric popcorn poppers. I’ve sold thousands of pieces, with many happy customers; many return to buy another item for themselves, or buy something as a special gift. People are delighted to be able to replace mom’s old waffle iron, or the old family toaster, or just buy one made in the U.S.A.

Tips for buying vintage and antique toasters

I’m often asked for advice about buying an old toaster. Here are the questions I ask.

Do you like it? First and foremost, don’t buy it if you don’t like how it looks. Does it please you and fit within your sense of design? Does it work properly? To be sure it works, have a pair of slices ready to test it out. You’ll meet with some chuckles when you whip out the bread, as I have, but it’s the only way to make sure it works properly. If you are buying it just for show and not as a working toaster, skip the bread.

What condition is it in? Look at the bottom first. Is it filthy, greasy, rusty? Does it look like it has been cared for or neglected? Are the feet missing or broken? Then, get it under a good light and closely inspect the finish. Look for any deterioration especially rust, corrosion, scratching, abuse with abrasives, dents and dings. Even if you don’t care about the fine points, it affects the price to a great degree. Check all feet and knobs, and look for damage inside to the heating elements. Don’t pay top dollar for a second rate piece.

Where are you buying it? Is the toaster at a yard sale, antique mall, or high-end shop? I would expect to pay the least at a yard sale. Usually a high-end shop will handle only the choicest of pieces, so expect to pay more for a first rate piece. Some people prefer to find their own treasures and pay very little; others would rather skip the yard sales and pay for the privilege of a premium piece for immediate gratification. If you are buying from a shop or a dealer, will they let your return it? Do they guarantee it? Has it been serviced and cleaned?

But, be prepared – prices vary wildly. As with everything else, value is very subjective. And, most dealers are not expert in the vintage toaster market. The most current and liquid marketplace is the online auction world which is useful as a reference for prices. Be sure and look at COMPLETED auctions since those are the only ones that count.

The neat thing about toasters and collecting them is that millions have been manufactured, and quite a few of them still exist today. Beginning prices are affordable on a teenager’s allowance.

Working or not, looking for them and collecting them is affordable and fun.