A Frank Take on Toasters

🕔May 28, 2007

To most of us, toasters are humble—even boring—kitchen appliances that no one really notices unless they’re not doing their job: making bread taste better.

But most of us don’t live in the world of Frank Kamermans. If you visit his place in Stewart and catch his attention long enough, you’ll never look at toasters the same way again.

Frank owns more than 1,500 vintage (i.e. pre-1965) toasters. He showcases a portion of them in a cluttered Main Street shop he’s called Toastworks. And for Frank, toasters do so much more than harness electricity to impart 310 degrees Farenheit worth of radiant heat to the surface of bread, caramelizing the sugars and starches and intensifying their flavours. The way toaster design has changed over the years tells amusing tales about human ingenuity, profit motives, consumerism and art.

“Toasting bread: it’s a simple problem, and you’d think the answer would be so simple,” says Frank. “But here’s the intriguing part: there are 1,000 ways to answer that problem.”

Initially, it was simple – at least, immediately after a young American engineer named Albert Marsh patented, in 1905, his invention of nichrome. This rust-resistant, low-conductivity alloy of nickel and chromium could be drawn into coilable wire and quickly heated to a red-hot temperature without burning out or breaking.

To forward-thinking minds of the day, nichrome’s relevance to the toasting problem was obvious. Only two months later, an acquaintance of Marsh submitted the first patent application for an electric toaster. The question of who actually produced the first toaster was then and still is debated, but one thing is clear: by 1909, General Electric had patented what was to be the first commercially successful toaster.

Then came 50 years of complication: toaster designers patented, produced, innovated to circumvent others’ patents, sued each other for patent violations, catered to toast-lovers’ desires to out-do the Joneses—and sometimes they and their designs just crashed and burned.

It’s a story that is reflected in all of the vintage machines that Frank has sourced from junk shops, antique shops, other collectors (mostly in Canada, the U.S., Australia and northern European countries), and e-Bay.

“I just can’t seem to go anywhere without bringing back toasters,” says Frank.

(Can you smell something burning…an obsession, maybe?)

“Sometimes you get a little crazed looking for a toaster,” he continues, recalling interstate drives and whole days scouring dusty junk shops pursuing unsuccessful leads offered by people who “thought they saw something” he wanted. “But I have to have at least a 50/50 chance of finding something before I’ll do that.”

I press: how far, really, would he go? “Well, only once have I paid $5,000 for a toaster,” he says.

While I retrieve my jaw from the table, Frank enumerates its merits: the brilliantly hued ceramic toaster featured simple lines, glass tubes, solid construction, and worked beautifully. Although manufactured in the U.S. in the 20s, the avant garde unit would have been right at home at a cutting-edge decorative arts exposition in 1950s Europe. And he quickly cites another collector, who scoops vintage toasters for twice that amount in online auctions.

He’s only met a few others of his species, and only online. Frank has yet to attend a single gathering of the Toaster Collectors Association.

“I’m afraid to ever show up at a meeting…to actually see myself as a toaster collector,” he grins. When asked what toaster collectors might have in common, his eyes widen theatrically: “I don’t know. Do they wear polyester?”

Fortunately for him, Frank’s wife Deb is more than willing to indulge his habit; she, too, is a collector—of vintage kitchen items like spice jars. Some might call them eccentric. For example, they offer free run of their house to Ripley, a goose who has adopted them, and whose gender remains a mystery. (“We just don’t want to turn Ripley upside down to look. That would be kind of invasive,” Deb explains delicately.)

But while Frank maintains that most of Stewart’s 600-some residents have absolutely no regard for his collection, even Ripley knows these two are no quacks. When they’re not stalking collectibles, they’re helping transform their town into a vibrant little tourist destination—by rescuing Stewart’s heritage buildings (about 20 so far) from the wrecking ball.

“Sometimes people just give them to us because it’s cheaper than tearing them down,” says Deb.

They restore them artfully and repurpose them profitably—for example, a former bordello has become a romantic waterfront inn. Sometimes they sell them, and sometimes they site their own businesses in them, such as the Bitter Creek Café, a very successful Main Street restaurant which is earning Deb a reputation as one of the best gourmet cooks in northern BC.

Toastworks is almost an afterthought. “It’s Frank’s collection more than it is a museum, but people want access to it,” explains Deb.

The toaster-lookers—about 10 a day from June to August—are mostly “outsiders” who’ve come to Stewart to eyeball glaciers and bears. Toastworks offers an absorbing diversion from coastal rains—and an outstanding, if quirky, collection that is the largest of its kind in Canada and probably among the world’s top 10.

“We don’t charge admission or keep regular hours,” says Frank. If they did, he speculates, Toastworks would draw at least 50 visitors a day—still not enough to generate sufficient revenue to hire a staff person.

“If a person gives me a good story about why I should let them in, I’ll do it. Because when I do, I’ll end up going on at length. And I can only tell my stories so many times without boring myself.”

It’s hard to imagine visitors being bored by Frank’s offbeat humour. Unlike some “serious” collectors, who evaluate the merit of collected items according to principles of sound design, Frank adores the hot-looking toasters that utterly misfired in their attempt to address the toaster design question.

“I knew I’d have to dig this one out,” Frank says, rummaging in a chaotic, toaster-stuffed back room for an example. He returns with the so-called Dominion Ramp.

This regal relic of the pre-popup era, available by mail-order for $11.95 from the manufacturer through an “Easy Payment Budget Plan,” promised to free you up to “go about your other duties” while it toasted “both sides at once!” When done, the side doors would fly open, sending the toast down an inclined track.

But there was a problem. “The angle wasn’t steep enough. You’d probably need to place a brick under one end to make it work,” says Frank. “One writer refers to this as a lousy, designless toaster—but that’s what I like about it. I’m surprised he couldn’t appreciate it for its simplicity.”

He pulls out another handsome machine. It offered users a handy lever to kick out the toast when done, but no way of discerning when that might be. “I just like it because it’s so crude,” laughs Frank.

Frank and Deb have entertained the idea of making at least some of their toasters work for their keep. For a while, they envisioned a funky city diner, each table crowned by a working retro toaster and coffee pot.

An obvious candidate was a 1920s-era Hotpoint. Its ambitious array of attachments promised to put the ‘break’ back into breakfast: besides making toast, it would perc your coffee, poach your eggs, grill your sausages and cook your waffles.

“But the downside, we found, is that it makes horrible coffee and bad toast,” says Frank.

There are other bizarre contraptions in the toaster museum, such as a gothic-looking hot-dog cooker that’s built to look like an electric chair, and which basically electrocutes the wieners until they’re oozing and popping before your eyes.

Frank admits that, with few exceptions, most toasters after about 1960 leave him cold. “In the 20s and 30s, about 100 companies were making toasters. People were still asking questions about the best way to toast. Maybe that question has been answered. Now there’s maybe two companies, and they’re focused on ‘what will people buy?’ It’s a different game now.”

But when asked which vintage toaster is his favorite, he just smiles diplomatically. “It’s like with children: you just can’t have a favorite. Everyone gets their turn.”

I press him further: what model does he use to toast? And the surprising secret emerges. “I grew up in a Dutch home. We didn’t toast much,” Frank confesses. “I’m not really a fan of toast.”

© Larissa Ardis 2007