A dual degree in architecture and engineering formed the basis for Don Ellwanger’s unique hobby – collecting toasters.
When the Ahwatukee man was first gifted an antique but working toaster in the mid-70s, his eye for workmanship and art deco style started him on a path to collecting the bread-browners.
His collection of 36 toasters, ranging from vintage 1900 models through the Fifties, grace shelves in his kitchen while at least 10 leftovers displayed in his office.
“In our home, toasters dominate the landscape,” he said of his well-polished, stamped or engraved one and two-slice antique toasters in his collection.
He is not only attracted to their unique nickel or chrome exteriors, often in art deco style with Bakelite handles and feet, but also marvels at their mechanics and craftsmanship.
It all began in a beachside apartment in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, while he was working as a radio station disc jockey.
“My landlady was in her 90s and one day she came downstairs with a General Electric toaster with the old flopper type doors that come down on each side, and though the apartment was fully furnished, she said ‘I don’t think you have a toaster in here,’” recalled Ellwanger.
“She said the toaster was one of two she and her long-departed husband had received as wedding gifts. She told me, ‘This is yours; I want you to keep it.’ It continued to serve me until 2007 when the filament burned in two.”
He said the more he examined the antique toaster, the more he wondered what else might be out there. But he had been advised by his physician to cut back on bread, so he put it aside.
And then came a 2011 CBS Sunday morning segment from South Carolina on the undisputed king of toaster collecting – Dr. Kenneth Huggins.
It was the same year Huggins entered the Guinness Book of World Records under the category “largest collection of toasters” – 1,284.
He was among the first members of the Toaster Collectors Association, founded in 1999.
In the interview, available on YouTube, the retired psychiatrist opens an outbuilding constructed to display his vast collection to fellow TCA members for that year’s annual convention. Among the toasters exhibited was the first American-produced electric toaster made by General Electric.
“I saw that interview and basically started thinking about toasters and started searching online and found another Westinghouse that looked exactly like mine. It was from the 1930s and had a spider web design,” said Ellwanger.
He ordered it from a private collector and was disappointed when it arrived with a broken heating element but the seller told him to keep it.
That second acquisition often sets you on the road to collecting.
His third one, which still works, was an expandable model that could hold a sandwich.
He decided to connect with Huggins and called him.
“We had a very lively conversation,” Ellwanger recalled. “He quizzed me about what I had and wanted me to come and see his collection. I never got to South Carolina but he probably inspired me a lot with his enthusiasm.”
Huggins continues to inspire with his regular posts on Toaster Collectors Association’s Facebook page.
Ellwanger’s collection has brought with them a wealth of knowledge on the origin and evolution of toasters.
He continues the quest for the special additions in-person as well as online.
“You find the gems every once and a while,” he said, describing how he found such a dust-covered gem nearly hidden behind other collectibles in the back of a Prescott antique store.
“They didn’t know what they had. It was number 326 of the first run of pop-up toasters,” he explained.
“It was very heavy and single-slice. Each toaster I obtain generally is still in working condition – some better than others – and I tend to rotate them from home display to kitchen counter.
“However, I do use one toaster fairly consistently – a 1953 single-slice pop-up McGraw Electric Co. Toastmaster with a separate knob for lighter/darker settings.”
It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t as common as bread in a household.
Toasted bread has been a human enjoyment since ancient times.
The term “toast” is derived from the Latin word “tostum,” which means “to scorch or burn” which is often what resulted from placing bread on sticks or metal forks over fire.
Pre-electric toasters were pyramid-shaped tin-and-wire devices heated on the wood or coal stove toasting one side of the bread at a time.
Then, Ellwanger explained, in 1893, scientist Alan MacMasters of Scotland invented the first electric toaster which he named the Eclipse.
The new invention’s wiring was susceptible to melting, a definite fire hazard. In 1905, Albert Marsh of Chicago created nichrome, an alloy of nickel and chromium that was highly fire resistant.
Four years later, the D-12 model patented by Frank Shailor was manufactured by General Electric and became a commercial success.
In 1919, Charles Perkins of Chicago, grew weary of burnt toast in the cafeterias where he labored and designed springs and a timer for the first pop-up toaster.
In 1926, his company offered a redesigned model and named it Toastmaster.
Ellwanger is still in the hunt for exceptional toasters but he admits because of space and so as not to test the patience of his wife of 28 years, he is being selective.
“Sheila made me promise I’d consult with her before buying any new ones,” he said of his partner, whom he met in Hawaii 33 years ago.
He favors art deco designs.
“Each one has been acquired because of each one’s unique design and functionality. I do find the ones that represent the Art Deco era appeal to me a bit more than other designs,” he said.
The oldest in his collection is a 1912 Landers, Frary & Clark Universal, one of the first American companies to manufacture electrical home appliances.
Ellwanger describes it as having an open arabesque design “with doors that articulate to toast each bread slice one side at a time.”
Ellwanger is retired from a career that included serving as a contract specialist with the City and County of Honolulu, senior procurement specialist for Arizona, contract administrator for Arizona Public Service Company, an independent contracts management consultant and president of the National Contract Management Association.
He has returned to radio.
Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Ellwanger was a volunteer reader for KJZZ’s Sun Sounds, and served as one of their Outreach Ambassadors.
Since the pandemic limited access to the studio where he read live or recorded magazines and newspapers for persons with disabilities, he put together an in-home studio where he will record again later this month.
In late 2020, Ellwanger displayed a sample of his collection with identification details at the Ahwatukee Recreation Center, where it was well-received. Plans are being made for a repeat.