What a 44 Year-Old Toaster Can Teach Us About Sustainable Design
How $2 bought me one of the best appliances I own
I like my toast. I’m one of those people that believes bread simply tastes and performs a better when thoroughly warmed and a little crispy on the outside. So you can imagine my consternation when my toaster recently stopped working. It’s not that the toaster stopped toasting, but rather by not automatically popping the bread up at the end of the toasting cycle, the problem was actually that it wouldn’t stop toasting.
Now this was no special toaster for which I had some personal affinity. It was a nondescript white toaster that I picked up at a thrift store a few years ago to replace another nondescript toaster that had also stopped working some time before that. And I probably would have bought another mediocre and nondescript toaster at the thrift store had my girlfriend not found me a beautiful chromed-out two-slotter at a yard sale one Saturday morning.
The toaster looked to be relatively new and in good condition. As soon as I laid my eyes and my hands on it, I knew it wasn’t just any toaster, it was an heirloom, or at the very least it was designed like one and it quite literally had a story to tell. Tied to the toaster with a piece of twine was a handwritten note that read:
A toaster that I had thought was maybe 4 or 5 years old was actually ten times that. And the 44 year-old chrome-wrapped “Coronado” has taken its place on my kitchen counter as one of the nicest small appliances I own.
The “Coronado” was made in Minneapolis, Minnesota by Gamble-Skogmo, Inc., a now-divested conglomeration of hardware, automotive and miscellaneous retail chains that once numbered nearly five thousand stores at its peak in the middle to late twentieth century.
As far as toasters go, it has everything I need: two slots, automatic pop-up and a light-dark control lever. There is an additional control on the bottom of the toaster for finer tuning should the toaster seem to lose strength over time. But the point is not that this thing is all tricked out with all kinds of bells and whistles, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
They do make ’em like they used to, it just costs more
The point is that this toaster served toast daily for 44 years—and to possibly three or even four generations of this family—and the only repair it ever needed was a new plug because of the wear and tear put on it from being unplugged after every use.
But the Coronado is not likely representative of the majority of toasters and other small appliances purchased or tossed into American landfills every year.
It is not that you can’t find a toaster that lasts 44 years any more, you just can’t afford one. Toasters are not designed to last a long time; they are essentially made to be replaced. Inventor Saul Griffith recently challenged designers to help change that by designing “heirloom products” and fostering a culture of maintenance and repair among designers and the general public.
One need only look to the classic and timeless designs of the Vespa scooter and the Kitchenaid 4-1/2 quart stand mixer to see that there are certainly successful examples of heirloom design available on today’s market. While the cost of these products have generally gone up, the price of cheap imitations have gone down.
Cheapness has become valued over quality because it has gotten so easy to make things and throw them away. The problem, simply put, is that manufacturers are not paying the full cost of production and consumers are not paying the full cost of disposal. And until those externalities are folded into the cost of doing business, things won’t change a whole lot.
Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying my 44 year-old toaster made by an obscure and now defunct mid-western hardware and retail conglomerate and the perfectly-browned toast it produces, always keeping an eye out for that next hidden heirloom.