To gain insight into the social values, lifestyle habits, and aesthetic tastes of any given era, we need only cast our eyes over the kitchens of the time. On the 125th anniversary of the first electric toaster, Georgia Jordan investigates the fascinating evolution of the everyday kitchen appliances we often take for granted.
For as long as kitchens have been around, people have been exploring ways to improve the efficiency of food preparation. As a result, the kitchen has always remained at the forefront of technological innovation, and within its walls lie clues to the lifestyle habits of the occupants, as well as the society of which they’re a part.
If there’s a kitchen project in your near future, looking to the past can help inform your design choices and allow you to better predict how your space will evolve in the years to come. Here, Melbourne Kitchen + Bathroom Design investigates the rich history of our most-used kitchen gizmos.
LONG, LONG AGO
What is now known as the heart of the home originated centuries ago as a purely utilitarian space with a sole purpose for food preparation. While the earliest domestic kitchens were a far cry from the stylish entertaining space we know and love today, they always managed to keep up with the latest advancements in design and technology.
The earliest concepts of some kitchen appliances can be traced back to ancient times, with some of humankind’s first attempts at building handy food-preparation machines dating back to the 18th century.
Toast Of Meals Past
While today we can easily toast bread to our heart’s content with a convenient benchtop device, the ancient Romans had to make do with hot stones by the fire. It is said they brought the idea of toasting bread back from Egypt in 500 BC, when they found that it inhibited the growth of mould, thus improving the bread’s longevity.
Humankind’s fondness for the taste of crunchy browned bread survived the ages, and in the 1880s a wire apparatus was used to cook slices of bread over a gas-fueled stove. The advent of electricity in domestic settings in the 1890s led to a slew of innovations in the kitchen appliance trade, and Scottish inventor Alan MacMasters patented the first electric toaster, the Eclipse, in 1893.
Historically, people kept their perishable foods chilled using a compact wood or metal box filled with ice or snow, if it was available. The first documented public demonstration of artificial refrigeration took place at the University of Edinburgh in 1756, when Professor William Cullen used a combination of pumps and chemicals to absorb heat from the surrounding air and produce small amounts of ice. While Cullen’s process was not yet practical or commercially applicable, it did inform the design for the first vapour-compression cooling device, which was created by American inventor Oliver Evans in 1805.
The French city of Alsace is thought to be the birthplace of the stove, where early models made from brick and tile emerged in the 1490s. Cast-iron ‘five-plate’ or ‘jamb’ stoves of German origin were popularised in the early 1700s, however these designs incorporated little more than a fire-heated box and a flue. In those days, people relied on stoves to not only cook their food but also heat their homes throughout winter. It wasn’t until the 1740s that Benjamin Franklin created the revolutionary wood-burning Pennsylvania fireplace, which featured hinged doors and would heavily influence stove designs in the decades to come.
Moving on from traditional wood- and coal-powered designs, gas stoves emerged in the early 1850s, however they were found in the homes of the wealthy. Similarly, New Yorker William Hadaway’s game-changing electric stove was patented in 1896, but was slow to be embraced by the public since electricity was still limited in the domestic sphere at that time.
“The proliferation of gas, water and electricity in homes in the early 20th century prompted significant developments in the way people lived and cooked.”
Early versions of the dishwasher emerged in the mid-19th century; these were clunky and inefficient hand-cranked devices that splashed water onto dishes. A more sophisticated motorised design with wire compartments for plates and cups was patented by wealthy heiress Josephine Cochrane in 1886, who entertained often and wanted a device that would wash her dinnerware faster than her servants, without chipping her precious china pieces.
With interest in her invention growing after its unveiling at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair, Cochrane went on to open her own factory, where she manufactured her dishwasher for the commercial market. The business she sold in 1916 would eventually become KitchenAid, a brand that remains synonymous with quality home appliances today.
20TH CENTURY BEGINNINGS
The proliferation of gas, water and electricity in homes in the early 20th century prompted significant developments in the way people lived and cooked. Some of the kitchen’s most significant advances took place in the 1900s, and from the 40s it began to transform from a purely-utilitarian workroom into a homemaker’s pride and joy.
Cold As Ice
If the stove was the focus of the 1800s, the refrigerator stole the show in the 20th century, undergoing enormous transformations over the decades to become one of our most common kitchen appliances. In 1914, Nathaniel B. Wales of Michigan designed the first electric domestic refrigeration unit, which would later form the basis for the worldfamous Kelvinator fridge. Variations on Wales’ fridge were mass-produced in the following years, and in 1927 General Electric released its immensely popular Monitor-Top model. These early electric refrigerators relied on poisonous cooling chemicals like ammonia and sulphur dioxide to function, which meant faults in the manufacturing process could be very dangerous and potentially fatal. Thankfully, three leading fridge manufacturers banded together in 1929 to design a non-toxic cooling method called Freon, which became the standard for almost all domestic kitchens within the next few years.
The start of the 20th century also brought forth significant developments in the cooking zone. The configuration of today’s electric stove originated in 1906, when David Curle Smith of Western Australia applied for a patent for the Kalgoorlie Stove, which was made up of hotplates positioned over a grill and oven. Three years later, technician Frank Shailor of General Electric patented the
revolutionary D-12 toaster, a cage-like device with a single heating element that only heated one side of the bread and needed to be manually switched off. By the close of the 1910s, the first timed pop-up toaster was introduced to the public.
Along with sliced bread, the 20s brought a wealth of innovation to the design of our kitchens. The first plug-in, non-whistling kettle was invented in 1922; and the Toastmaster, which closely resembles the toasters of today, arrived on shelves four years later, when electric benchtop appliances were still considered luxuries. By the late 1920s, electric stoves were in demand due their convenience and low maintenance requirements.
The microwave might be the only home appliance that was invented entirely by accident. While at work in the lab, American radar engineer Percy L. Spencer realised the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted as a result of the microwave-producing magnetrons nearby. Recognising its potential for cooking applications, Spencer built the world’s first microwave oven, which was quickly patented by his employer Raytheon. In 1945, the 1.8m tall, 340-kilogram Radarange microwave was released to the commercial market.
The introduction of permanent plumbing in the early 1900s allowed the dishwasher market to proliferate, with Miele releasing Europe’s first electric top-loading model in 1929. By 1940, front-loading designs were in full-scale production. Dishwashers would only become a common domestic fixture in the next decade, after an electric drying element was added.
THE FLOURISHING FIFTIES
After the end of the Second World War, homeowners enjoyed a time of newfound economic prosperity and high employment rates.
As a result, the middle classes in the West grew, and focus turned from warfare to improving quality of life in the home.
The Australian home appliance market experienced a boom in the 50s, when homemakers sought to create their own domestic havens complete with all the latest products. With more women entering the workforce, demand for time-saving food-preparation and cleaning appliances grew.
Manufacturers continued to improve the functionality of their products in this decade, with Sunbeam Australia launching its first ergonomic pop-up toaster in 1955. Fridges became more affordable, and were fitted with enhancements like automatic ice makers, defrosting technologies, and magnetic strips to keep doors tightly closed.
Aesthetics also became more important in this decade, when gorgeous light-pink, mint-green and turquoise appliances began to fly off the shelves.
THE NIFTY SIXTIES
As manufacturing companies fought to stay ahead of the market in the 60s, kitchen appliances underwent a period of rapid evolution, which meant homeowners could enjoy the conveniences of smaller designs with higher functionality.
Advances in manufacturing technology increased the availability and affordability of benchtop appliances, which quickly became an essential part of daily life in Australia. However, the use of cheaper and less durable materials meant that they needed replacing more frequently.
Miele introduced the automated dishwasher in 1960, but it was expensive, costing about as much as a housekeeper’s annual salary. Countertop microwaves hit shelves in 1967, but sales wouldn’t spike in Australia for another decade and a half due to radiation concerns.
THE SWANKY SEVENTIES
The seventies brought forth more improvements to existing appliance designs, both in functionality and aesthetics. Most benchtop appliances were available in a wider range of hues, with avocado green, copper-toned bronze, and gold proving popular in accordance with the typically bold décor and earthy colour palettes of the era.
The stove also underwent a significant update in this decade, with the standard iron burners replaced by glass-ceramic hotplates that offered faster heating and reduced afterheat, as well as a smooth, easy-to-clean surface.
THE CREATIVE EIGHTIES
In the early 80s, a shift in focus towards energy efficiency and environmental awareness hugely influenced the way kitchen appliances were designed, especially once they were found to be a major source of electricity consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Dishwashers decreased in price and ran on less water, while toasters featured more slots to suit family life, and were made larger to accommodate bagels and thicker slices of bread. Heat-resistant plastics were also widely used to make benchtop appliances more economical.
By this time, microwaves were taking the Australian home-appliance market by storm. Offering homemakers the ability to defrost, cook and reheat their food quickly, they had essentially revolutionised the way people prepared food, and sales soon grew to exceed that of gas ranges.
THE MIGHTY NINETIES
Homeowners of the nineties still bore the environmental mindset of the eighties, especially amid landfill concerns and heightened social expectations for choosing energy-efficient appliances. This led to an increased demand for long-lasting appliances made from sturdy materials that are commonly used today, such as stainless steel and glass.
Those in the market for cheaper options, however, were still able to purchase appliances made from thermoplastics, which are lightweight and therefore cost less to transport and store, yet still offer a decent level of durability.
Motors also became quieter to create a more pleasant, guest-friendly kitchen space. Praised on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996, the Fisher & Paykel DishDrawer dishwasher found fast fame for its convenient and space-saving design.
From the naughties to now, kitchens have evolved to encourage healthy cooking and highly efficient food preparation, while also taking centre stage as the social hub of the home.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost 100 per cent of inner-city Australian households own a fridge, with double fridges becoming increasingly common in larger abodes. Homeowners who enjoy throwing dinner parties are likely to install dual ovens with the latest technological features, and just over half of inner-city homes own a dishwasher, although income and family
composition significantly influence how much they’re actually used.
With the ability to either blend our appliances seamlessly with our cabinetry, or choose a contrasting design to create visual interest, we can now easily customise our kitchens to not only suit our lifestyle habits, but also our aesthetic preferences.
“As appliances become more intelligent and connected, the kitchen will come to play a larger role in our lives than ever before.”
Today we find ourselves amid an electronics revolution, and the emergence of smart, interconnected appliances is already beginning to change the way we use our kitchens. When it comes to aesthetics, however, homeowners have recovered their love for the playful rounded edges and bright hues of retro-style appliances, which are appearing more and more in trendy homes around the world.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Kitchen appliances are expected to become markedly smarter and faster in the coming years. Soon we will be able to either operate them via our smartphones and voices for effortless hands-free control, or program them to automatically adjust to our unique preferences.
As appliances become more intelligent and connected, the kitchen will come to play a larger role in our lives than ever before. For example, your fridge and pantry may be fitted with sensors to keep track of the foods you’re storing and removing; using this information, they’ll be able to provide estimates of calorie intake, which might be sent to your smartphone or wearable-tech device. Your smart fridge may also be able to automatically order milk from the grocery store when you’re running low! Convenient built-in charging stations for your portable electronics and retractable power points will become standard features as we move towards high-tech living and streamlined aesthetics. Large and small appliances will continue to become quieter and more powerful, especially those that are central to creating a pleasant living and entertaining environment, such as smell-extracting rangehoods.
With present-day appliances offering a wide range of advanced material and functional features, as well as a selection of optional bells and whistles, knowing the history of each device can help clarify which designs and components will best serve your current and future lifestyle requirements.
Taking moments in our daily routine to reflect on how far our kitchen appliances have come can also help us cherish the space we have, and might even make your next perfectly toasted slice of bread just that little bit more enjoyable!