by Diana Bulls
Christmas is over. The wrapping paper and ribbons have been cleaned up and the presents have been put into use. Maybe you were the recipient of one of the newest juicers or coffee makers–hopefully not the one that was recalled–or some other kind of clever kitchen device that has been advertised on late night television. My husband, who loves French fries, received a potato cutter from the cats. (Yes, in our family the cats shop for Christmas.)
Anyway, this started me thinking about kitchen gadgets and gizmos from years past. I thought it might be fun to take a look at some kitchen utensils and small appliances that might have shown up under the tree in the early 20th century.
Around the turn of the century, most women took on the daily household chores by themselves. Only a few could afford live-in help or a daily maid. But even for those more affluent, restrictions on immigration in the early 1900s were making domestic labor more expensive. On the other hand, most urban homes had piped in gas and electrical wiring was just around the corner. In Reedley, we actually had electricity in 1907 and piped in gas was available in 1913.
It was a heyday for inventors and all kinds of “time-saving” devices made their way into the market. Some were practical and some were just plain crazy. Nevertheless, I imagine that most housewives were happy to have some of their everyday chores become less backbreaking and easier to manage. Speaking of which, I think our great grandmothers would have a hard time understanding why women of today feel the need to work out.
Take ironing for example. Prior to the early 1900s, homemakers typically used flat irons that could weigh up to 15 pounds. You needed to keep several on the stove so the irons would be hot enough to do their job. Ironing was so tough that even less affluent households often found the money to hire a laundress. No wonder these irons were nicknamed “sad irons”! The only advancement made in the design of flat irons was a wooden handle. The handle did help lessen the chance of being burned. A great improvement was the iron heated by kerosene or gasoline. Even though they could catch fire (or even explode!), these liquid fuel irons made the job of ironing much easier. The first practical electric iron didn’t show up until 1903.
Cleaning the carpet was another backbreaking job. In fact it was so hard, that many carpets were only cleaned once or twice a year and heaven help those who suffered from allergies. To clean a carpet–remember wall-to-wall carpeting wasn’t around then–you first had to roll it up and take it outside, throw it over a clothesline and then beat the heck out of it with a broom or a rug beater. A rug beater is basically wire attached to a wooden stick. It is said that the vacuum cleaner was developed because there were fewer servants available to do the carpet beating.
Carpet sweepers were invented around 1860. One was a sweeper that gathered dust from a brush that rotated when pushed. Another had a bellows that created suction. The problem with that one was that you needed two people: one to pump the bellows and one to steer the machine. Another version was the plunger model, where you pulled a pump and it sucked up the dirt. However, that one only worked on very thin carpets. Carpet cleaners went through many, many versions, but the first practical, portable electric vacuum cleaner was invented in 1907 and vacuuming only got better from then on.
Making the breakfast toast wasn’t so backbreaking, but it did require some skill and good timing. Essentially, you held the piece of bread over the open fire in a wood stove. There were a variety of long-handled utensils available for toasting bread, some with fork tines and some that were two-sided racks. You had to time it just right so the toast didn’t burn. Toasting on a gas stove was a little easier using a pyramid-shaped holder that sat over the burner. That one toasted four slices of bread at one time, a great time saver. But again, toasting wasn’t always consistent.
In order for electric toasters to become a reality, some kind of element that could sustain high temperatures needed to be developed. This happened in 1905, with a nickel-chromium alloy that led to the first commercially successful electric toaster in 1909. This toaster only toasted bread on one side; you had to flip the bread over to do the other side. It was 1925 when the “pop-up” toaster that browned bread on both sides came on the market. It worked on a timer and automatically ejected the toast. Did you know that store-bought sliced bread wasn’t available until 1930? That’s when Continental Baking Company introduced Wonder Bread.
And finally, I just wanted to include this not so much because it is collectible, but because I thought it was interesting. American housewives were “green” long before it became popular in the 21st century. They made use of everything. Old clothes were made into rugs, flour sacks were made into clothes, and all the leftovers from cooking or eating went into the slop bucket for use in the garden or feeding to the pigs and chickens. The first garbage disposal was invented in 1927 and nicknamed the “electric pig”. Now days, slop buckets have been replaced by composting containers.
Here is a time line of some of our labor-saving appliances:
• 1903 Lightweight electric iron introduced by Earl Richardson of Ontario, California. After complaints from customers that it overheated in the center, he makes an iron with more heat in the point and soon customers are asking for the “iron with the hot point”—in 1905 his trademark iron is born.
• 1907 First practical electric vacuum cleaner by James Spangler a janitor who suffers from asthma. Unsuccessful with his heavy, clumsy invention, he sells the rights to a relative, William Hoover, whose redesign gives the vacuum cleaner more horsepower, higher airflow and suction. And the rest, as they say, is history.
• 1909 First commercially successful electric toaster. Frank Shailor of General Electric files a patent application for the D-12. It has a single heating element and no exterior casing, no working parts, no controls, and no sensors; a slice of bread must be turned by hand to toast on both sides.
• 1913 First refrigerator for home use.
• 1926 First automatic pop-up toaster developed by Charles Strite goes on the market. It is known as Toastmaster.
• 1927 First garbage disposal developed by John Hammes to make kitchen clean up easier for his wife. The “electric pig” pulverized food waste so it could be flushed down the drain.
There are many more unique vintage gadgets and gizmos used in the kitchen that we haven’t even begun to cover. It gives me fodder for my upcoming articles in 2015. In the meantime, I hope you got everything you wanted for Christmas. Hopefully it included something quirky you can laugh about in the future.
Check out more of Diana’s home collectible articles here in KRL’s Hometown History section.