How to buy a toaster … not Made in China

A neighbour reported on an online forum that his car had nearly been stolen while dining out locally.  On leaving the restaurant he discovered his car unlocked and engine running.   He also has a car that uses a Start button instead of having to insert a key into an ignition lock.

I suggested that perhaps he had been distracted and left the car running which would prevent the doors from locking even if he had tried.  It has happened to me several times since the engine can be so quiet at idle that it can be difficult to tell it’s running.   The original poster attacked me for questioning the veracity of his story.   He knew with absolute certainty that he had shut off his car and locked the doors.

So I replied – why did the thieves go to the trouble of breaking into your car, starting it (no mean feat in a modern car) but not drive away with it?     I have yet to see a response.

The point of my story is that you should never be completely sure of anything.  I am very close to 100% certain I will die one day and that 1 + 1  =  2 but I reserve some small probability that I’m wrong.  I’ve been advocating that people not buy items made in China, if possible.  But I’m far from certain that personal economic sanctions against China will ever result in regime change or if it is even the right and ethical thing to do.

I did need a new toaster.  I had a Breville for a dozen years and it’s no longer toasting on one side.  It is also Made in China.     Aside from very expensive high end toasters, it appears that every toaster now is Made in China, although they may be cleverly advertised as designed elsewhere.  Some can be purchased for less than $10.  This is a ridiculous price, how can a profit be made by the Chinese factory?  That’s because the factory is operated by the Communist Government of China who will sacrifice profitability in order to destroy foreign competition until the world becomes solely dependent on Chinese manufacturing1.  One need only look at the recent global PPE crisis during the early months of the Covid Pandemic to see the danger of relying on only one supplier.   I was never happier when I saw Canada begin to remanufacture N95 masks, knowing also that these products would unquestionably meet proper N95 standards of filtration.   China only claimed its products met those standards and often exported counterfeit products that clearly did not.

My solution was to buy a vintage toaster. Almost any toaster made before the 1980s would have been made somewhere in North America. Toasters introduced in the immediate post War period demonstrated astounding technology and build quality. These designs were produced with little change for many decades and many toasters outlived their original owners and were handed down to the next generation. They can be found on eBay, Kijiji/Craigslist, and antique markets.

The first automatic pop up toaster was invented in 1919 by Charles Strite and sold in 1925 as the first Toastmaster model.  My Toastmaster model S131 shown on the left, the modern yet broken Breville on the right. Look at the full access to clean accumulated crumbs allowed by the Toastmaster and a view of construction quality. The Breville gives you a mostly useless crumb tray. The Breville is also so much larger and with so many buttons.
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                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The Toastmaster Automatic Toaster S131 (D) looks like it debuted in 1957. The model continued to use the same chrome 2 piece shell from the 1947 1B14 model but the bakelite handles were moved from the middle to the bottom of the unit. By the 1960s the models no longer sported the Art Deco curves of Mid Century Modern (MCM) but a boxy brushed metal appearance.                                                                                                                                                   As an aside, how times have changed!  This ad openly suggests buying a kitchen appliance as a Christmas gift for your wife.  As if she was your maid.  Wrong on so many levels yet not perceived by the male doctrine of the time.  Kind of like that recent TV ad of gifting your wife a new Peloton because it’s so important she keep in shape.

The MSRP of $19 in 1957 is equivalent to approximately $180 today.  These were popular wedding gifts and likely my example was also a wedding gift since it is essentially in new and unused condition.   People today have gotten used to purchasing toasters for less than $50 (again only made possible by China subsidizing the true cost of manufacturing) but pricing a toaster at $180 is how you pay employees a proper living salary and still have enough profit left for the company and management. 

Keen eyes will have observed that the Breville has buttons to electronically lower and raise the bread.   The same keen eyes will have read the Toastmaster advertisement and surmised that the Toastmaster Powermatic Toaster (A) does the same, accomplished with a motor driven chain drive.  But all these designs were eclipsed by the elegant functionality of the 1949 Sunbeam Radiant Control toaster.

This is my T-35, the second model redesign after the original T-20 and produced between 1958 – 1967. The only difference is that a Sunbeam logo has replaced the decorative etched pattern on the chrome body.

The weight of the dropped bread slices trips a switch to activate the heating elements which expands the tightly wound nichrome heating wire and slightly shortens the vertical length of the central heating core.  The heating core lengthens when the power is interrupted by the thermostat and the nichrome wire quickly cools and shrinks.  This small change in length supplies the forces that when amplified by a third class lever system allows the toast carriage to rise and fall.  No motors, no noise & pure simplicity.   Toast is made to perfection because the Sunbeam monitors the heat radiated from the surface of the bread to determine when it is done, not just merely the general internal ambient heat of the toaster.   Eggo waffles turn out perfectly done without needing any manual adjustments for frozen foods.

                                                                                                                   The ingenious mechanism in action. There is a shielded bimetallic strip that responds to the heat radiating from surface of one of the slices which interacts with the thermostat to terminate the toasting cycle.

This toaster retailed at $23 in 1949, which represented a third of an average weekly wage or nearly $300 today.   Sunbeam made this toaster unchanged save for minor cosmetic alterations until 1997 when the company filed for bankruptcy after being incompetently and unscrupulously managed after the original company passed through several new owners during the 1980s.  At its peak, the company employed over 30,000 people but half were laid off in 1996 to make the balance sheets appear more profitable and drive share prices higher for a quick and easy profit. 

Since the period plug was unpolarized and also ungrounded, depending on how its plugged into the wall receptacle there is a chance of having live electricity running through the nichrome wires and electrocuting somebody touching the wires even when its cold. The cord rubber was cracking and the plug was also very small as per the era and put one’s fingers very close to the electrical prongs when being plugged and unplugged. Time to rewire the unit with a modern cord.

Not everyone has the time or the finances to actively find products not made in China.  Nor will our collective efforts necessarily change the direction of Chinese leadership.  But it may impact the economy of China enough to make her citizens, troubled by a drop in lifestyle, become more critical of the actions of their own government.   This may concern Premier Xi enough to pause his dangerous plans of continued annexation of Hong Kong and Taiwan, not to mention a litany of other bad behaviors including holding the two Michaels hostage.

Politics aside, reusing iconic vintage items celebrates their timeless designs and conserves the natural resources of the planet.

1 The proof as to how artificially low Chinese products can be priced to undercut all competitors check out:

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