Retrotech: The Great Toaster of 1949

This post argues that the Sunbeam Radiant Control Toaster, introduced in 1949, is the best toaster ever built.

I’m not much of a toaster expert…when there is toasting to be done around here, we mostly use the broiler…but do the toaster aficionados, assuming we have any such here, agree with the assessment?

In any case, the post raises an interesting question: what other types of products are there in which one particular historical product model is so excellent that it has never since been improved, or even matched?

41 thoughts on “Retrotech: The Great Toaster of 1949”

  1. I had a Dualit toaster with a sandwich accessory, which I was very happy with, until an unfortunate accident ruined it. Bought it at Williams-Sonoma, with an employee bonus, at least two decades ago. Did toasted cheese sandwiches a dream (although if you mis-timed it, the melted cheese dripped out onto the crumb tray.) The toast didn’t pop up automatically when done, but stayed warm inside, until you lifted it up. Plain timer switch to set the length of toasting.
    (Sigh) When I am a rich author, I will either buy another one, or have the existing one repaired.

  2. I wish I still had my pre1990s Nissan pickup truck which had no electronic engine controls. If there ever is an EMP, we will all be walking unless we have an old car. Of course the gas pumps won’t work.

  3. We had one for many years from the ’50’s, it finally quit and was replaced by something far inferior, some time in the ’90’s. I saw the video and it’s really good in a nerdy way, explaining just how it works and why it was so reliable producing consistent color.

    In a world of $300 rice cookers, I wonder why there doesn’t seem to be room for a really good toaster. All the patents have long expired, there’s nothing to keep anyone from ripping it off shamelessly.

    Too many new toasters have the element too far from the bread and use ones that heat up slowly so they dry the bread out by the time it’s toasted. Four slice toasters are a complete waste of time unless you can get one from the U.K. or Europe and provide it with 220V power.

  4. I bought a couple of boxes years ago at a hardware store. Your comment prompted me to find them and try them out. Not much good compared to what I was used to. I’d hate to have to try to use one to start a one match camp fire. I believe all this is in the name of “safety”.

  5. Why did Sunbeam stop making it? Too expensive?

    I’ll nominate the Piper Cub, first flown in 1937. Beautiful, economical, simplified elegance.

    They later made a super Cub (more hp), and today there are a host of imitators, but the original Cub design soldiers on.

    And Piper hasn’t made it in years.

  6. Working on an excavation at a Roman fort I once dug up a broken pick axe head. It is indistinguishable from the modern iteration. Probably not made of quite the same quality of steel, but give the IV Cohort credit, they mined local low grade bog iron and forged it on site on the northern frontier of the Empire. Supply chain issues? Fah!


  7. I would submit that the Smith and Wesson revolvers from the sixties and seventies can’t be improved upon.

  8. As far as I know, they’re still available though autos seem to be where the action is. The real difference is that a lot of revolvers and autos have adopted the firing pin block that allowed cautious people to carry S&W’s with a round under the hammer rather than an empty chamber. Most other autos now have some mechanism that prevents them from firing without the trigger being fully fully depressed as well. Smith and Wesson salesmen would supposedly throw a fully loaded revolver at the ground to demonstrate, something that was very dangerous with a Colt, even a 1911. This is something that people buying older pistols and revolvers need to keep in mind, especially if they’re intending to carry them, many will go off if the hammer is struck with a round in the chamber. Most, at best had only a half cock notch preventing this.

    This is one place where the state of the art has improved. Domestic producers don’t seem to have much problem competing at premium prices with imports.

  9. U.S. general aviation plane production has been killed by product liability. At least half of the cost of currently produced aircraft is liability insurance for the manufacturer. If you own a small plane, it’s either very old or you’re rich and if its old, liability makes things like engines very expensive as well.

  10. How many people have stories about how terrible modern appliances are? My parents had the same microwave for my entire childhood, it lasted from before I was born until they remodeled their kitchen after I left for college. I’ve gone through several in my adult life. Let’s not even mention anything having to do with water–dishwashers and washing machines obviously don’t work with 3 gallons the way they did with 15, no matter how much the government tries to claim they’re equal or better in performance.
    We got a new refrigerator two years ago, and have regretted it since day one. The first replacement we got was a lemon, and took literally nine months for GE to accept it couldn’t be fixed and had to be replaced with a new one. And the new “efficient” compressors are insanely loud. Like driving us to insanity loud, about 2/3 of the time. When it’s off it’s an amazing relief, when it’s on it literally hurts my brain…

  11. Mother and Father bought a new GE refrigerator as soon as they were available on the civilian market after the war, shortly after their marriage in 1946. It was in use continually for more than seventy years, either as their primary refrigerator or as the backup in the garage, after they remodeled the kitchen in 1962. That new GE in the kitchen finally died in 2016.

    The original GE was still running well when we sold Mother’s house in 2020, she is now in a nursing home due to her very advanced age. The auctioneer who bought the house contents was delighted with the 1940’s unit, and inclined to keep it for his own use rather than offer it for sale.

    No appliances made today are designed with that kind of longevity in mind. Perhaps Vitamix blenders or the better grade of Kitchenaid stand mixers. Even commercial-grade products are assumed to be subject to feature obsolescence long before functional use wanes.

  12. I dunno if anyone else commented on this, but….

    Not everyone likes their toast exactly the same!

    Some like it lighter, some darker.

    In fact, depending on the specific application, I like it more than one way. For making a sandwich, I like it toasted very lightly, just enough to firm the outside of the bread. For “toast”, I like it a moderately brown context.

    But there are some people who like it just slightly burnt, too.

    Plus, as they ack, it does not work for bagels.

    So this toaster seems like a one-size-fits-all. Even if there is an adjustment (and, offhand, I do think I actually still have one of these, being a packrat and all…. it does WORK — and that did have an adjustment knob), it’s still a bit of a pain to have to fiddle with the knob if there is more than one toastee in the house…

    What you need is a digital version of the above, that still uses the analog means of sensor, while using a digital setting method to decide when it is done.

    As to price, that’s always arbitrary garbage. The price of most mechanisms these days is totally arbitrary. A clothes dryer is US$200 (not adjusting for recent boosts in steel prices).

    Now, there is not one real precision component in that — every single item in it could have been built in 1910.

    It needs:
    Steel box
    Perforated Steel Drum
    2 bearing elements
    Motor for drum
    Heating element
    Fan motor for heating element
    A hinged door
    About 5-6 different types of sensors and controls, all pretty straightforward and types that existed in 1910.

    Yet it is impossible to find the above for less than US$200.

    MEANWHILE, a Raspberry Pi kit runs as little as $50 bucks, up to about $150 for “all included”. Not a single significant part of which could have been created at ANY price as of 2000.

    Nope. The material cost of manufactured objects is literally trivial for most things, even something as large as a clothes dryer. The actual cost of “making it” is equally trivial, being around the same as the material cost.

    The cost of most stuff has a lot more to do with the cost of shipping and the cost of “setup labor” — i.e., the people involved in actually deciding to “make it” and then “sell it”… plus lots of market increase for for “cache”… e.g., “Balmuda”.

  13. I’m glad JRob mentioned the KitchenAid stand mixers. I inherited my grandmother’s KA stand mixer after her passing and still use it to this day. Had to replace the cord and had it lubed/maintained locally once. That thing has probably mixed dough for a hundred thousand cookies and who knows how many cakes. I have heard that the innards of the new ones aren’t like the old ones.

  14. “I have heard that the innards of the new ones aren’t like the old ones.”
    Yep. There’s plastic junk in there, so the newer ones can’t handle stuff that my grandmother’s can still rip through…

  15. It toasted U.S. commercial bread very well. When it was invented, that’s about all there was. I’ve been caught more than once by the versatility illusion where you end up with something that does many things poorly and nothing well.

    Widening the slots for bagels means the elements are farther from the bread so it toasts bread poorly and slowly. Widening the slots for “artisanal” bread means the heating density goes down if you’re going to just plug it in here. Solid state needs to be kept cool, most die if exposed to temps above 180°F and the bread doesn’t toast below 350°. Timers mean the first batch is good, the second is burned.

    I located what seemed to be a new version of this years ago and thought about buying one. I decided that it wouldn’t be worth the counter space because I simply don’t make toast very often and haven’t used store bought bread in 20 years. If I had kids, that would be a lot different. Still worth admiring an ingenious design that did what it was supposed to well.

  16. There’s a 1955 Osterizer blender in my family that still works. There may be a toaster of similar vintage. Many people nowadays use toaster-ovens in place of toasters.

    Modern clothes washers and dryers seem much less durable than older ones. The older systems had mechanical rotary switches and clockwork timers that were subject to wear but tended to fail slowly and incrementally. Modern washers and dryers are controlled by unified electronic circuit boards that take down the machine when they fail and are expensive to replace. Even low-end electric kitchen ranges today have electronic controllers, which is stupid.

    As with mass-market computer software, modern appliances often sacrifice reliability and ease of use to gain extra features of marginal utility.

  17. Just a general observation about electronic controls proliferating in all consumer products. It especially becomes obvious in automobiles, where driver interfaces are becoming more like consumer electronics such as cellphones and tablets. Just as with appliances, electronic controls often replace simple and durable and user-friendly operations.

    Manufacturers eagerly tout flexibility and additional features they can offer, software updates to add functionality, and try to spin it as a customer benefit. I contend they are driven more to reduce costs, at the expense of the customer. Incorporate all the controls in a large touchscreen, all you need are some engineers and programmers, offshore perhaps, instead of a team of designers developing buttons, knobs, switches, and traditional controls, not to mention the supply chain needed for multiple such devices.

    Customers interacting with their vehicle in motion with numerous distractions do best with proven, ergonomically tested control interfaces. Tune the radio, volume control, adjust the airflow and temperature, select gears, signal turns, adjust the seating, lots of activities that are best done with dedicated control interfaces, instead of swiping a touchscreen to jab at the correct button hidden in several menus.

    Teslas almost have to be self-driving because a single screen is used for almost every control, and other makers are going down the same path. A ten year old Volvo’s old-style controls once learned simply work with minimal distraction, a new Volvo’s Sensus screen is an unsafe joke for operating the car’s systems. All car makers are creating planned obsolescence through control systems that will go out of support just like a PC running Windows 7.

    These things are bound to fail, and deliver benefits only to the cynical manufacturers, not to the customers whose real-world needs require solutions that have been proven through decades of ergonomic development, not disposable consumer electronics interfaces.

  18. Dan:

    Interesting assertion, can’t find much fault with it. Might be a business opportunity, there, retrofit some controls into modern cars to reduce dependence on the central device.

    Although at some point, you’ll still have to interface, it could well be that you could “cut out the middle man” and at least only have to put a very very simple, cheap and consumer-replaceable board that does the final signaling, attached to one wire that runs into a “bus”, akin to the classic PC, making it more readily swappable by the end user.

  19. The M1911A1 introduced in 1926 had a minor set of improvements over the original M1911 pistol introduced in (duh) 1911. In terms of safety (grip safety, thumb safety) it is still manufactured in overwhelming numbers today, almost unchanged since the original.

    It is unrivaled in its stopping power (.45 ACP) and user-friendliness. It is a masterpiece of simplicity of operation and design, and its designer, John Moses Browning (peace be upon him) made it extremely cost-effective for its day.

    It has been supplanted by the current versions of the plastic-fantastic striker-fired plastic pistols, but remains unsurpassed by those who treasure a full-size steel pistol with an unsurpassed trigger pull and level of accuracy that remains the standard to be beaten.

  20. First place: Ma Deuce
    Second place: M1911
    Honorable mention (because I don’t think anyone actually makes it anymore): SMLE

  21. The transmission used in the older top load washing machines is a thing of beauty. The are regularly known to last for decades with only a simple belt replacement. They worked with a simple, cheap motor and a couple of solenoids.

    New washers tend to use poly-phase, inverter controlled motors and last a couple of years at best. Yet there is no shortage of people to tell you how much more efficient and reliable they are because they eliminate so many moving parts. Honestly, most of the failures I’ve seen are to things like bearings from leaking seals rather than the motor and especially to the boards from water. Who could have seen that coming?

    You could often find a replacement for 20 year old electro-mechanical controls by counting the terminals on the back they were so generic. You know that whoever sells you one today won’t have a board in five years.

    I did once use an Arduino Nano to reverse engineer the controls for a high end Italian pasta mixer/extruder. It probably wasn’t cost effective but it was an interesting challenge. There’s a thriving market for repaired industrial electronics, I’m betting the “authorized” technicians are very careful to destroy replaced boards. There’s a lot more you can do to fix a board that’s worth a couple of thousand bucks than one that costs a couple of hundred.

  22. MCS…the liability issue for aircraft manufacturers was partly addressed by a bill that passed in 1994. The current estimate for liability costs is 20-30% of price. (It would be interesting to compare this with the product liability reserves for other kinds of products.) There have also recently been some simplifications of FAA certification requirements.

    Looks like you can get a J-3 Cub today for about $50K, used of course. As originally built, no self-starter…have to turn the prop over by hand to start it.–J-3-Cub.html

    Piper Tri-Pacers seem to be cheaper than cubs, for some reason.

    There are also a lot of kit-built airplanes around these days.

  23. @MCS – way back in the day we sold appliance parts. We would sell those old washer transmissions by the skid. There was a rebuild program! Appliance repair guys would bring the dead trannies into us and we would skid them up and send them back to (someone – pretty sure it was an independent company) and they would repair them and send them back.

  24. Dan, I didn’t know that. All the few I was connected with just seemed to run forever. Long enough ago that the lineup included gas engine powered washing machines and kerosene refrigerators, my grandfather sold Maytag. At that time one of the draws for dealers was all the money they could make from selling parts. My dad would go out on some service calls but most of the parts were probably installed by the farmers themselves, just like their tractors. Not something you see today.

  25. MCS has it right. The Sunbeam toaster is only good at toasting the infinite number of brands of same-size US commercial bread, all of which taste exactly the same – like recycled cotton. Panera, Kneaders, Great Harvest, and any number of small bakeries all make bread that is marginally to significantly better, and often their best breads don’t fit in those little slots, especially if you like your bread sliced thick. I think the best bread I ever ate in this country was some sourdough that came with dinner at a place on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, back in the days of the great ancient ones. It wouldn’t have fit in the Sunbeam either, but the question is purely academic, since the chances that anything like it still exists are vanishingly small.

  26. Car manufacturers seem to have mostly forsaken actual innovation for competition to make controls complicated and obscure and changing the shape of the knobs. While I have driven cars and trucks with up to 18 speed transmissions and tandem transmissions as well as more conventional four and five speeds, I expect I’d have as much trouble getting one of the cars in the post moving as someone encountering a stick for the first time.

    The first time I went to drive a new to me Nissan after dark, I found out that the dash lights had been turned down completely and that perversely, once I turned on the headlights, the dash went completely dark. It probably took me five or ten minutes of searching and experimenting before I discovered that the small button that controlled the odometer turned to adjust the dash lights. A real triumph of design.

    A real problem is the transmissions that this proliferation of knobs and nubs purport to control. It may be selection bias but I have never heard of one of the new dual clutch transmissions that wasn’t a nightmare with multiple recalls.

  27. “Automotive interface” ought to be a thing, and it ought to have something like the SAE or DIN standards applied to it.

    There. I said it.

    Go get into a Toyota of about 1990-2010 vintage. Any of them, and as many as you can manage. Note that the interior interface for the driver is amazingly… Uniform. Now, go look at GM, or Ford, or… Yeah. Look at how many nit-noid differences there are between models, even variations of the same supposed model. In-fscking-sane.

    I go to work on one of my Toyotas; I take the VIN into the parts department, and I ask them for parts that go on that vehicle. No issues; they can even tell me if that VIN has had the requisite service orders and recalls applied to it, even if it was done overseas.

    Now, contrast that with Ford; I go in to buy a replacement drivers-side rear view mirror for an F-150. There are literally a hundred different variations, and they’re not at all delineated by VIN. It took me three weeks and multiple trips to the dealer to get the right rear-view mirror with the right wiring/light/heater option package built into it. And, that was with me taking the bloody truck down there, and dragging the parts manager out to look at it…

    Toyota has done cars right in the past; not so much lately, but the 1990s and early 2000s was a golden age for them. I can’t tolerate getting into something else, because it’s about like my sister-in-law’s freaking VW SUV-like thing–You drive that sucker, and it’s an exercise in “WTF?!!?!??!”, because literally nothing is consistent with any other VW you’ve driven, and there are a huge number of idiotic things incorporated into it like automatic door unlocking that are totally anti-intuitive. I drove the car to drop off for her, and had to run a couple of errands; I hit the door lock button, but when I checked the handle of the door to see if it was locked, it wasn’t. I’m like… WTF?

    Turns out, and you have to go deep into the manual wherein the information is buried and opaquely laid out, whenever you have the fob with you… The door unlocks itself when you go to open it. If you want to check the door for being locked, you have to take the key fob well away from the vehicle, lay it down, and then you can check the door locks to see if they actually… Y’know, locked.


    I am by no means a total idiot; I have a knack for reading complex technical documents and making sense of them. I had very few issues making complex munitions systems operate in the Army, even ones well-known for having lousy manuals. Yet, that VW and its manual…? Yeah; I want nothing to do with that car, or anything else constructed by the gnomes in Wolfsburg. You go to work on anything of theirs, and assuming you can even get the documentation, these days, and it’s a circus funhouse of special tools that you have to have, just to do simple things like change the headlights or one of the bulbs. Every family member of mine who’s bought a VW earns a resounding curse from me, because I’m always the idiot who winds up trying to fix their BS when they can’t figure it out.

    Don’t even get me started on most domestic manufacturers. Make me king for a day, and I’d put most of these idiots to the rack for arrant stupidity and obfuscated design work. I mean, for the love of God, why the hell do you have to have seven different sizes of hand tools to take off one bloody assembly? Could you not do the same thing, with bolt heads of similar sizes? Why are there metric and SAE fasteners BOTH on the same vehicle…?

    Swear to God, there ought to be one over-arcing system, wherein you number the bolt heads/nuts and stamp that number on them, such that you only have to look at it and go “Oh, that’s a number three… Need the open end, on that one…”. But, no… It’s like the bastards want to play games with the poor schlep who has to do the maintenance on their design crapfests.

    Too much of modern technology is like this; no adherence to standards, no respect for the maintainer or user. Hell, look at Windows, and ask yourself why the hell the morons who designed the interface ever enabled focus theft? X-windows had focus lock back in the dark ages, but Microsoft? Oh, yeah… They knew better. ‘Effing morons…

  28. Zippo lighter. Coleman white gas stove. Basic Victorinox (“Swiss Army”) knife. Wagner cast iron cookware. Corning dishes. The mil-spec woobie. Oh, and the similar mil-spec field jacket, with heavy bronze zipper AND snaps. An Estwing claw hammer. Brown paper packages tied up with string…

    The standard form-factor of a paperback book is pretty stable. Although I notice the Kobo and Kindle and Nook seem to be converging on a stable very similar notion for the e-book.

  29. The original Volkswagen Beetle was absolutely bullet proof. And you could fix it at home without fancy tools if you had a set of metric sockets. It wasn’t perfect. It was severely under powered and could not keep up on an interstate (the speed limit back then was 70, even in town). the aerodynamics were such that a passing truck in the left lane would blow you off the highway. the heater was a joke.

    The Chevy small block V8 was wonderful. Sadly, the transmissions sucked and the bodies were made out of compressed rust.

    We had a 1985 Amana Radarange microwave oven for about 35 years. It was bullet proof and built like a tank. 2 knobs — power and time, and 2 buttons — light and on/off. Sadly the microwave tube diminished in power to the point where it took 4 minutes to make a cup of tea.

    The old IBM PCs were great. metal chassis but everything was hinged or on sliders so you could access any part within a few seconds and without tools. But due to the continual evolution of silicon they are no longer usable.

    I think most products go through a cycle. the first generation is experimental and malfunctions a lot. The second generation the bugs have been worked out and the parts are over speced. Third and later generations they keep skinnying down the parts (more plastic less metal) to make it less expensive to manufacture, while they live on the reputation of the first generation.

  30. The Hamilton 992B pocket watch was the most accurate time piece a non rich person could buy before the quartz watch.

    Every railroad man had to own one and you could always find one in a pawn shop at a reasonable price. I bought two of them in the 60s.

    They were very well made and every jeweler in America could service them.

  31. I’ve rented about 20 different cars this year. I’ve driven another 4-5.
    I take the point about standard controls but who gets to decide

    I’ve not had any trouble figuring out any of the controls in less than 2-3 minutes.

    The only thing that has ever given me any trouble occasionally is conn Bluetooth and that only an extra couple minutes.

  32. Back at the dawn of the automotive era, everything needed to be worked out. One of the first decisions was how to steer. Many early cars adopted the tiller which simply extended the wagon tongue up and back. This proved inconvenient to other occupants of the front and often only seat so the steering wheel was widely adopted. The way it turned in relation to which direction the car turned was subject to interpretation by different manufacturers. As the title card might say, hilarity ensued. The trouble seems to be that while the majority of manufactures adopted the convention we use now, some insisted that the opposite sense, since it followed the tiller and wagon convention, was much more intuitive. Sounds familiar. As John Henry said, someone has to decide.

    Here’s a video explaining how to start and drive a Model T.

    Three pedals, none of them a gas pedal, three levers, none of them a gear shift.

    And, of course:

  33. Agree, toasters today are pure junk, and we’ve regressed no matter the price point.

    Can’t be improved?
    * Colt Python
    * VW Beetle for its simplicity and maintainability
    * Louisville Slugger bat
    * Original Western Electric dial phone
    * Original Brooks Brothers cotton dress shirt.

  34. The Colt Python is not a “Can’t be improved” item. There are a lot of aspects to that pistol’s design which are not optimal, and are done better in various ways on things like the Manurhin MR-73 series. I am not a revolver guy, at all, and I once made the mistake of saying nice things about the Python to someone who was very much an elite revolver shooter and gunsmith. His take on the Python was that it was the best American revolver of the 19th Century, and a triumph of craftsmanship over design and execution. Absent the Colt employees who made it, that pistol was (at least in his mind…) nothing particularly special. I can’t enumerate all the different things he ranted about, but the upshot was that there were other, better revolvers out there that were far more sophisticated, reliable, and simpler in design.

    Colt, I am afraid, has been getting along on reputation a lot longer than we’d like to acknowledge. The Python is an icon, but it’s not an intrinsically good pistol, nor is it the last word in revolver design. It’s kinda like comparing a bespoke Bentley or Rolls-Royce with one of the German supercars–Hand-fit everything, luxurious feel, but seriously dated design and underlying technology.

  35. I bought a Toshiba microwave back in 1990. It weighed a young ton, was as noisy as a Concorde take-off, but ran absolutely fine until it passed away into the great Electronics heaven some two years ago.

    Everything I looked at for a replacement was either made in bloody China, or had a label disguising the fact of Commie China’s involvement.

    Took a while to locate, but finally replaced it with a South Korean model; but it’s not a patch on that awesome Japanese item.

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