The sad truth about toasters

I bought a toaster today.

I didn’t want to buy a toaster today. About ten years ago I paid $60 for what appeared to be a rather high-end Krups model in accordance with my normal strategy of “pay for quality so you won’t have to replace for a good long time”, an upper-middle-class heuristic that I learned at my mother’s knee to apply to goods even as mundane as light kitchen appliances.

I had reason for hope that I would get a well-extended lifeline for my money. I recalled the toasters of my childhood, chrome and Bakelite battleships one just assumed would last forever, being passed down generations. “Luke, this toaster belonged to your father…an elegant weapon from a more civilized age.”

Alas, it was not to be.

The Krups, though it appeared well-constructed, had a fatal design flaw I had not seen in any toaster of my previous acquaintance. It was a misfeature of the dingus I thought of as “the slider”, a pair of aluminum slats with protruding little flaps on which the bread actually sits inside the slots. This is the interior part attached to the spring-loaded thingummy you push down to begin the toasting operation.

The slider was (a) made of excessively thin aluminum or mild steel, and (b) further misdesigned so that it would sometimes jam in the guide channel on the rear end of each toaster slot (intended to guide it straight up and down) and bend slightly. After a couple of these regrettable incidents, the tongue on the rear end of the slider would pop out of the guide channel and jam against the rear wall of the slot, with the slider compressed into an unpleasing serpentine shape.

I soon lost count of the non-enjoyable hours I spent fishing inside the slots with a pair of long-nosed pliers, forcing the slider tab back into its guide channel and then trying to hand-straighten the slider, cursing sulphurously the while. I would always succeed to a degree, but it was never possible to completely de-serpentinize the sliders; the result would remain ever so slightly more hinky than when I started. I could always see the day coming when the sliders would become so spavined that further intervention would avail me not.

That day was today; specifically during my wife’s Cathy’s attempt to fix her breakfast. Mine, a half-hour earlier while she slept in, had gone fine, but… “Love, would you please fix the toaster?” I got all armed up to be the hero again, but struggle as I might, I couldn’t unjam the device. Der Tag had finally arrived.

So we hied ourselves to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond. And now unfolds the burden of my tale. For there I was again faced with the choice of where to land on the price curve. There was an array of toasters before me priced from $19.99 to over $100. Go high, hoping to buy longevity, or go low and treat the thing as a throwaway?

And then, and then, I had a rush of engineer to the brain and realized that what I ought to be doing is inspecting the part that failed – the sliders – on all of them, and choosing for the most rugged-looking one not mounted in a toaster with glaringly obvious defects. So, I narrowly inspected the sliders on, I think, seven toasters – several major brands and one obvious house brand.

How did I know what I was looking at? Why, a quick look at the Consumer Reports website on my smartphone. Which told me the assemblage before me included at least two models with high ratings.

My friends, the sliders were all effectively identical, bar the one pair that was slightly longer to fit a toaster with extra-long slots. Same nondescript thin white metal, same shape and spacing of flaps. They looked like they all might have been designed on the same CAD program and built by the same no-name appliance OEM (“Welcome to the Malaysian assembly plant of Oh Shit Housewares, HQ in Taiwan”).

Suspicions aroused, I flipped over several toasters and peered at the end consumers don’t usually look at. A lot of the design details on the plastic bases were pretty similar, also the fasteners looked pretty much alike.

The sad truth about toasters: they’re completely genericized, built strictly for lowest Bill of Materials to standard designs that are differentiated by surface details that don’t have a lot to do with their actual function. I’m now convinced that I would have seen little more variation anywhere I went unless it was to a specialty store catering to the restaurant and luxury trade at $$$ high prices.

It’s no great mystery why this happened. Efficiency is a harsh mistress – I mean look at the automobiles one sees on the road these days. Within any given form factor they’ve become mostly nigh-indistinguishable except by paint job and some trim details. As with toasters, there was more variation in product when I was a kid.

So, if I were an idiot, I might launch into a rant about how capitalism flattens everything into cheap popular mediocrity. I’m not an idiot; that process is why nominally poor people in the U.S. can have a lot of nice things. It’s a good trend, as long as specialty providers for the discriminating still exist. And that’s a viable market niche, too.

I shrugged and bought the cheapest possible toaster – $16.45 with discount. Took it home. Checked that it would deal with thick slices of the Tuscan garlic boule I eat with breakfast. It works fine.

Now I’ll go research where to buy a really durable one when this throwaway craps out. Suggestions welcome.

Categorized as General


    1. >Isn’t the next step obvious? A GoFundMe for the open source hardware toaster project.

      Not enough software content to be interesting. Making a durable one is really a MechE project with some trivial electronics.

      The superficial similarlity between this and my UPS emergency wasn’t lost on me. But the differences are more important; there’s no must-have feature of toaster software analogous to “tell me how much dwell time I have left” that the mainstream vendors aren’t supplying. Sometimes quality compression doesn’t hurt a product category seriously; it does in UPSes, but doesn’t in toasters,

      There’s probably some rule of thumb related to informational complexity lurking here.

      UPSide will be one of those niche products for the discriminating.

      1. I realize the software and electronics might be trivial, but good hardware never is. Wouldn’t it be cool to build a toaster that would last generations? I’d be very interested to know how top geeks would approach this. Couldn’t high-quality guts be pieced together from off-the-shelf parts? Add some nice controls and case options, or roll your own. Sounds fun to me.

        1. I don’t know that I qualify as a “top geek”, but here goes.

          I’d go with a pendulum-driven escapement for timing, rather than the cheesy bimetal thing (most of those are total crap when you want to make more than one round of toast anyway).

          A simple one would work well enough. Emphasis would be on ruggedness rather than strict accuracy — it’s not going to be used for celestial navigation. :-)

          The movement from an old mechanical metronome would be a good starting point, I think, plus it would provide some visual entertainment.

          If it were going to be electromechanical, a solenoid-actuated mechanism with the solenoid itself well away from the toast compartment and its associated heat would last a very, very long time if it were only being used once or twice a day or so, and not cost too much. Slap a 555 timer (with the best available resistors and caps) on there, maybe some sort of optical control (so you don’t have to worry about a pot wearing out).

          1. P.S. I know the 555 isn’t anywhere near the state-of-the art. That’s the point. This job doesn’t need state-of-the-art. It needs parts that you’ll be able to replace 20 years from now. After 46 years, we can pretty safely say that the 555 isn’t going anywhere. Even if it did, it’s simple enough that if you really had to you could bloody well build one out of discrete components.

            1. The problem with using a fixed timer vs bimetal is that when you’re doing multiple rounds the residual heat from the last ones affects the timing of the next one, so you need to take that into account.

              You can get durable toasters, but expect to pay through the nose for them. It’s cheaper overall to get a midrange cheapie and expect it to last no more than 5-10 years.

              Alternatively you can obtain a Sunbeam T22 (which will cost you around $200 despite being 30-60 years old) and be happy.

              1. Sunbeam T20, not T22. And although some of them are priced from $100 – $200, that’s not the norm. I bought a spotless one for 50 bucks off eBay. They are much more commonly found in the $40 – $80 range, in excellent condition.

        2. Yeah, my thought was to make an open source design as well. How about a design optimized for production using modern maker-level tools: cnc mill, water jet, laser cutter, 3d printer ? Circuit design and board layout on as small a footprint as possible using off the shelf parts. Built for easy access and maintainability and customizability.

          1. There you go guys, that’s the spirit! It’s interesting even if it’s just a thought experiment. Personally I think I want a case that looks like something from 1940’s pulp science fiction. A toaster for Lensmen. Or maybe something with a slight alien or steampunk feel….

        3. > Wouldn’t it be cool to build a toaster that would last generations?

          Probably not worth it. I mean, maybe 110 V AC will be an antique standard in ten years. Maybe bread will be a lost luxury. And who doesn’t get tired of looking at the same old toaster?

      2. > Making a durable one is really a MechE project with some trivial electronics.

        Yes, but making an *Internet of Things* toaster would be _way_ more difficult and interesting.

        (I kid, I kid. I own an IoT lightbulb and it has led to conversations with my wife like “Could you please turn down the light? It’s offensively bright.” “I’m sorry, I can’t control it, it’s updating the firmware and if I were to turn it off, I’d probably brick it.”)

        1. Look – I’m a guy who does his own home renovation work. The biggest limitation to Eric and Cathy coming to visit is having to step over the pallet of trim in the hallway. I do my own wiring and most of my own plumbing. Yet I own 0 IoT devices.

          You’ve outlined one reason – why should I have to wait for light bulb firmware to update? But there’s another key element, too. Why add that degree of complexity? It’s only going to result in script-kiddies being able to turn on a city’s worth of lights in a decade when the manufacturer ceases to provide security patches. Assuming I don’t have to throw it away because the industry has moved on to a completely different communication standard.

          I can see some value for something like temperature control – the amount of time it takes for heat/AC to have an effect is large. If your changes and you’re heading home early it’s nice to be able to walk into a comfortable house.

          Bah! Get off my (poorly manicured) lawn!

          1. It’s not just the (lack of) utility they offer.

            I’ve had one IoT bulb fail over the course of several years. Assuming that rate of failure persists, if I were to equip my entire house with IoT bulbs, I’d be spending around AUD800 / year just replacing failed bulbs!

            Have you seen :)

          2. Umm, how do you know? Have you opened all the devices up, or tested them with receivers?

          1. >Well, computing a few transaction hashes should heat a slice of bread quite nicely…

            A toaster that uses the waste heat from blockchain mining! I am in awe of the stupid brilliance of this concept.

    2. Infra-red LEDs rather that resistance heaters, possibly even modulated to allow a hard crust with chewy center, or crisp all the way through.

  1. Darn, too slow for first comment. I think you would be satisfied with a Dualit toaster. They are made in England still, beautiful, available in more than a few colors, and according to one of my friends who was in pretty much the same position as you find yourself now, basically bulletproof. I intend to get one when our current toaster eventually dies, which brings me to another point of relevance: said toaster is a Kitchenaid, with some sort of motorized doodad to raise and lower the toast, eliminating that point of failure and adding a heaping helping of additional ones. I expected it to die pretty quickly and prepared myself for the upgrade, but it’s been 5 years and only the LCD has started to flake out. (A brief look at Amazon appears to indicate that this one, apparently known as a Kitchenaid Artisan, is out of production.)

    (Forgot to note: “Website” link is to a Dualit listing on Amazon, no affiliate.)

      1. >“Fully repairable with replacement parts” and
        “engineers name is on the baseplate”, so you know who to call when it does break

        I think we have a winner.

        I’ve been to the Dualit website. Damned if those people aren’t aiming their quality pitch straight at me – and they make me believe they care enough to deliver on it, too. “Fully repairable with replacement parts” carries a lot of weight with me.

          1. >We had a Dualit many years ago. It felt like a proper tank.

            Well, then, the interesting questions are “How long did you have it?” and “Why isn’t it still in commision?”

            Remember I’m looking for durability.

            1. Can’t remember how long we had it; it was a long time ago.

              There were no mechanical problems, we got rid of it because we stopped having a toaster around.

          2. British B&Bs love their Dualits. Apparently you can make industrial amounts of toast forever with them. They are built to survive the heat death of the Universe and are easy to clean.

        1. My ex had one of those a couple decades ago. She kept it, and for all I know it still toasts to this day.

          The prices now are about half what she paid for it then, but still an order of magnitude higher than a “high end” middle class toaster. The price/quality curve is steep, and you usually need to go to a specialist store just to discover these devices exist.

          “Fully repairable with replacement parts” sounds like a feature until you wait over a decade for one to break in the first place.

          They don’t use springs–you lift the toast by hand–and they use a mechanical timer. It’s like someone made a list of all the toaster parts that break, then designed a toaster that contains none of them.

        2. We bought one (the two slot version) in 1998. We’re still using it every morning. I’ve never had to do ANYTHING to it to make it work – it just goes and goes…

    1. Experience with these kinds of LCDs suggests you might want to check the polarising film.
      Surprisingly these tend to be the least durable part when heated.

    2. +1 on Dualit. Some years back the 30+ year old toaster my wife inherited from her grandfather died. We went through a succession of cheap toasters more-or-less annually, then bought the cheapest Dualit we could fine (an older version of their “2-slot Lite” model, I believe), which has served entirely uneventfully for, I don’t know, at least five years now.

    3. Thanks for the tip. Our new Dualit 4-slot toaster is now occupying a prominent place in the kitchen.
      A nice complement for someone who also uses classic IBM 101-key keyboards.

    4. I have a British Dualit toasting in my kitchen counter since ’84….works great. I think the newer ones are using some Asian parts now. They look identical, built like a tank, I wouldn’t have anything else. Also have a beautiful, chrome Sunbeam SINGLE slice toaster also, I think it’s prewar, found it for 5 bucks in a Thrift. Sit’s on the table and looks wonderful with it’s red Bakelite lever and knob, works like a charm. But go with a Dualit…nothing like it.

  2. I do think of the situation as a market failure, at least in some goods, because we’re now stuck with throwaway cars and throwaway computers which don’t cost much less than the durable ones used to.

    1. I think that cars today actually cost a lot less, once all factors are considered.

      From the big picture aspect, it’s now considered normal for each driver in the household to have his or her own car (to the point that some would actually consider it abnormal for this to not be the case). That wasn’t true even 50 years ago.

      From a closer look, cars today are far more reliable than they were 50 years ago. The drawback is that you can’t usually work on them yourself.

      1. Aye. The last two cars we got rid of in our household were sitting north of 20 years and 200,000 miles. We have another that’s a bit younger, but well north of 200k.

        1. I just stop using Prius with 200k after 13 years. I got rid of it because there’s a crime wave around my neighborhood of thieves targeting this kind car for its catalytic converter. It’s now going to cost more for big ticket item than it’s worth on direct sale to someone else.

          1. I have now finally seen my first Prius ad on Craigslist with a hybrid battery in need of replacement. It’s a 2003 with 220K miles, and they want $500 for it.

            I had thought that the hybrid battery was only good for 150K or so, but now I’m reading that Toyota considers it a life-of-the-car component.

            And I’m now on my fifth consecutive used car daily driver; the current one has 184K, and it had the fewest of any I’ve had in that series at 133K when I got it. Still holding up very well.

            1. I drive 30-50,000 miles a year, and was able to pay for my Prius out of gas-savings alone. It literally gets twice the mileage of my 1994 Camry wagon (which is also a nice car – I really like the design.)

              1. I have a 2003 Camry that is stone cold reliable.

                The car seriously inspires confidence; it’s like a faithful friend that never lets you down.

                Made some money Lyft driving with it.

    2. We throw away cars after accidents so we can walk away from them.

      The energy in an accident has to go SOMEPLACE. In the auto-tanks of yore, enough of it went into the passengers as to make survival chancy. Today it is expended banging up the bodywork and sliding the engine *under* the passenger compartment on rails purpose-designed to do that.

      (I had to throw away a very nice car indeed after broadsiding someone who ran a red in front of me. I didn’t even touch the airbags when they went off, because I wasn’t whiplashed by the collision; and I was entirely uninjured. I’ll take that over riding an ambulance away and being able to pick the car up later)

    3. That’s nonsense.

      Almost *any* car sold today will, with moderate maintenance and crash avoidance, run for 120 or 150 THOUSAND models.

      I’ve got 3 cars in my driveway, the *newest* is a 2004 model with over 150k on the clock with no major repairs required (one has air adjustable shocks and developed some leaks, that wasn’t cheap) timing belt replacement ain’t cheap though.

      Cars today look the way they do because physics is simply non-negotiable.

      1. I got damned lucky: bought a 2000 Subaru Outback in 2012 with 189K on it. Timing belt hadn’t been changed once (a 100K mile interval item). I drove it up to the nearest dealer to have the belt replaced. I still have the one that came out of it: it had a crack in between every tooth.

        150K should be considered a lower bound, these days, IMAO.

        1. I haven’t ever gotten more than 120K out of any of mine, but I do not PMCS as regularly as I should; and I have a tendency to drive hard and put up wet every couple of years. Plus, I don’t pay the premium for the durable brands (Honda, Subaru)

          I’m hoping to see more out of my current car, light use and a better attention to maintenance.

          1. If you keep the maintenance up, driving it hard and putting iit up wet isn’t a concern.

            And don’t be fooled by the reputation. Any more, cars simply don’t suck the way sucktastic cars from the 70s and 80s did. The manufactures have discovered that their customers are happier and their warranty costs are lower that way. Perhaps the biggest example of this is Hyundai/KIA: when they raised their warranty to 100K miles, it forced them to raise their game, and now they make seriously good cars. If I were in the market for a new car, I’d definitely give them a look.

            1. Make of it what you will, the last two cars I got rid of for mechanicals (as opposed to insurance writeoff) were:

              A 2002 Ford Taurus that I could just barely swear was mechanically sound without perjuring myself (10 years/120k miles or so – primary reason for disposing of was to replace with an SUV for headroom-over-car-seat).

              A 2008 Smart ForTwo; 140k miles or so at 8 years, and was unable to swear was mechanically sound due to an intermittent and undiagnosable-at-reasonable-expense ignition error code that caused the computer to shut down one of three cylinders. First only on the coldest days with a cold engine, then eventually a few miles after every start…

              Prior to that, it was a 1992 Ford Ranger with a seized-up manual transmission at 120K (and 12 years, 2 of which I owned it) that I couldn’t afford to have repaired at the time (and even at a reasonable $700-1000, was more than the car was worth).

              The current stable includes 2 essentially-new (9 months and 18 months, more or less, between first sale and sale to me) Nissans, with which I am following the general-duty maintenance intervals.

              1. I had a 1992 Explorer with what was probably the same manual transmission as your Ranger. It disintegrated at 65K. I had it towed 70 miles to a Ford dealer to get rebuilt. 4000 miles later, it disintegrated again…and Ford refused to honor the repair warranty.

                And now you know why the Ford Motor Company will never get another dime of my money, even indirectly.

                1. There’s a certain amount of anecdata here, though. I bought a one-year-old Ford Escort in ’96 with 22K miles on it. It finally died on my in 2008 at 247K miles, and it was my fault: I knew the transmission had developed an oil leak and delayed topping it off. There’s a good chance, had I not done so, it would still run.

                  I replaced it with an ’05 Sedona with 53K miles, which was nothing but trouble and I finally got rid of it last year at about 160K. To be fair, if I were willing to drop a new engine and maybe transmission in it, and have the wiring redone to fix all the ground faults, I could probably get a lot more mileage out of it instead of the much newer replacement I got.

                2. Stuck in 5th gear (which made towing it more expensive and problematic than it could have been, given that this happened on the DE Memorial Bridge, facing uphill).

                  I don’t recall the exact diagnosis (I may not have been told – ISTR the garage I had it towed to opened with the bottom line; at which point I said “here’s the title in exchange for the labor you’ve put in already, sorry to put you to the trouble.” I sure as hell wasn’t doing anything with an undriveable pickup truck, and had just bought the Taurus a few months back)

      2. My 1999 Subaru Legacy Outback wagon has 267,000 miles on it. Of course, I have a real mechanic who knows how to make parts and actually fix cars to work on it.

    4. The durable ones?

      Lifespan of a car in the ’50s was “a decade or so”, with luck, and not cheap or easy to manage in terms of maintenance.

      Cars are kept longer, and work better, for longer, with less maintenance nowadays than in the Good Old Days, for the most part.

      (Sure, buy a BMW or Mercedes and you’re better off dumping it when the warranty period or lease ends.

      Which is only fair, since leasing appears to be the core of their business model.)

      Equally I am not remotely sure that modern computers (not “cheap laptops”, mind, but desktops) are one bit more “throwaway” than those of 20 or 30 years ago.

      1. I must dissent. My last two daily drivers have been used Mercedes, a 2000 E320 4Matic wagon in 2013 with 158K and a 2008 ML320 CDI 4Matic diesel SUV in late 2014 with 133K. They haven’t been ridiculously expensive to own. The secret to buying a used Mercedes is to have a thorough prepurchase inspection done by a good independent mechanic, and then religiously keep up the maintenance, just like German engineers assume a good owner will do. If you do that, they’ll go forever.

  3. I used to have the opposite problem with my late mother when I still lived at home. She was an ex-pat Brit, and drank a lot of tea. To save pennies, she bought the cheapest teapots she could find, and replaced them at a rapid rate because she would lose track and let them boil dry and be ruined. I said “You know, mom, if you would spend a little more money and get a good teapot, you wouldn’t go through this because a good pot won’t be ruined if you let it boil dry…” Mom was a highly intelligent woman, but life cycle costs weren’t something she grasped.

    Depending on usage, the toaster ought to last long enough. What I would do is talk to a restaurant supply house that supplies products for commercial kitchens. Restaurants need toasters that don’t fail, thank you very much, so a commercial supplier is a better bet than a consumer retailer. A 30 second Google reveals an assortment of online suppliers for such things, complete with product reviews.


    1. “The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

      Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

      But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

      This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

  4. Yep, cars all look the same now because they’re all trying to meet the same fuel economy standards. One of the ways you do that is with aerodynamics and fluid dynamics is the same for everyone.

  5. > if I were an idiot, I might launch into a rant about how capitalism flattens everything into cheap popular mediocrity.

    Not trying to rathole the thread, but do you know a good, simple counterargument to this kind of thinking?

    I can think of plenty of counterarguments, but they all assume basic econoliteracy.

      1. >It’s “Vime’s Boots” all the way down

        I laughed so hard when I read that scene. That is totally the purchasing philosophy I grew up with.

        Took me many years to understand it wasn’t everybody’s. I should have known much sooner from how many consumer goods were cheap disposable crap, but somehow I never made the connection.

        1. The thing is, cost does not always correlate with quality. I have an old e-machine sitting around that has lasted much longer than the buzzwordy advertising stickers on the front would indicate. To look at, the thing screams “this is a crap product made by a sketchy company”, but the thing actually still runs. Also, weirdly, the nameplate clock rate is about 25 percent under what Linux reports, and, on further research the listed clock rate wasn’t even available for the CPU series in the machine. That’s not to say that I’d be confident buying another e-machine if the company were still in business, sample size of one and all, but on the face of it this thing should have died around year two.

          But aside from that, there are quite a few product types where price doesn’t correlate with quality, and, of course, for software there tends to be a strong anti-correlation.

          1. >The thing is, cost does not always correlate with quality.

            Of course that is so. To run the “Vimes’s Boots” heuristic successfully you need two preconditions:

            (1) You need to normally have enough cash in hand that you can afford to spend a bit more on a purchase with a downstream defect rate enough lower than the el-cheapo product that it will end up saving you money. Poor people cannot do this and thus often net out to making more expensive choices than rich people.

            (2) You need to be able to tell when spending extra will actually buy you that lower defect rate and when it won’t. Sometimes you will get this wrong, because lots of money is going into generating false quality signals – but it’s still worth it to try.

            1. Retailers and manufacturers are well aware of this heuristic, and their strategy includes countermeasures for it. I would not be surprised if all of the toasters in the store you looked at were manufactured in the same factory.

              Retailers know that buyers can’t distinguish one toaster from another, so they buy a $5 toaster design, put $2 of quality signals on it, build it at a contract manufacturer, and sell it for $100 on the same shelf where they sell their $16.45 toaster (that’s the $5 toaster with retail markup and a discount).

              If toasters make you sad, try buying a pedestal fan. They do a variation on this, where all the fans have identical plastic housings but different electrical and mechanical assemblies. This makes it impossible to distinguish between them when looking at photos of the devices (whether printed on the box in the store, or online). Start taking these apart, and you’ll find that they’re all quite different inside. It looks like whoever is making them is just buying the cheapest motors they can jam into the housing–sometimes with elaborate plastic adapter sleeves around them–then picking a random number for the price tag and seeing who will buy them that month, and making sure they all look the same to make comparison shopping as hard as possible.

            2. (1) You need to normally have enough cash in hand

              Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing that easy consumer credit is supposed to deal with? Or are the interest rates so high that they eat the gain from the good ‘boots’?

              1. @Edward Cree:
                Really poor folks may not have consumer credit of any sort. They may not even have a bank account. Plastic is not a factor. They pay cash or do without.


              2. >Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing that easy consumer credit is supposed to deal with? Or are the interest rates so high that they eat the gain from the good ‘boots’?

                Consumer credit does help here. But there’s a psychological element as well. People conscious of their debt load may avoid front-loading their expenses even when rational calculation would show they ought to. And I think this especially likely if you grew up poor.

                That’s how an upper-middle-class birth SES helps; you can learn to be careful about money without being so stressed out about it that your spending behavior gets neurotic.

          2. In 2006, I was in the market for a new laptop. I spent $900 on a Compaq with a nice 64-bit AMD processor. (This was toward the end of the Compaq brand’s lifetime.) Every single one of my coworkers spent nearly twice that on one of the shiny new Intel Macs. Within a month every single one of those Macs was in the shop. The Compaq ran without incident for five years. I gave it to my parents. They don;t use it much anymore, but it still runs.

            As it turns out, through the years Intel-based Mac laptops have had numerous build-quality issues, from unibody cases that weren’t to thermal issues that caused GPU glitches to today’s keyboard clusterfuck with the Idiot-Bar-equipped 2016 MBPs. I only learned the extent of these faults recently.

            1. As a counterpoint, I recently replaced a 2007 17″ MacBook Pro that gave me a solid 10 years of service.

              Yes, I had to replace the battery periodically, as in all modern laptops with Li-Ion power. Yes, I had to replace three cooling fans (the thing only had two to begin with), and renew the thermal paste once. Yes, I had long since maxed out the RAM at the very strange figure of 6GB (probably a hard-coded memory map problem) and fitted an SSD. And yes, the first key on the keyboard had just ceased to function.

              But after 10 years, it was still working well enough to use as my primary platform to do serious work on.

              And then I ended up in a car crash. *That* was when it stopped working. I bought a 2011 model with the insurance money; the newest one that meets my functionality and quality standards.


      If compared on a relative share of GDP basis, $18 today is $1 is 1970, so this toaster would had to cost like 95 cents back then. On an unskilled laborer wage basis, $6.5 is $1 back then, so this toaster would had to cost something like $2.5 back then.

      Yet I am pretty youre the cheapest toaster in 1970 was probably far more expensive.

      So in 2018 dollars, you could not buy a toaster under, say, $50 or $100 back then.

      People today want things real cheap. Or need things real cheap. That table partially answers why – .

      I think a good simple answer is people cannot afford to spend so much on toasters because they spend more on housing, education in the case of the US, taxes, fuel, cars maybe (just a hunch), heating and other utilities, and a bunch of other things. In a certain sense, people today are poorer and people feel this – look at how easy was back then to buy a house when young and how hard it is now.

      Housing is one thing that does not respond well to the usual competitive market incentives. Already Heinlein in the 1940’s pointed out if they built cars the same way they build houses – assembling it on spot for the customer – they would be crazy expensive. Why don’t middle class people live in prefabs in 2018? Regulation, prestige (dat trailer park stigma) but more importantly because location is itself quite expensive. Because everybody competes for the same scarce lots – urban, suburban, and “good neighborhood”. Add higher population, mostly due to immigration, and location in good places becomes astronomically expensive. The countriside has a dearth of good jobs, and many parts of the city turned real bad.

      There would be ways to fix the city jungles, but the issue is, even cities without “bad neighborhoods”, like Tokyo, are expensive. So only solution is to deurbanize.

      Suppose it was made somehow viable to telecommute to an office job from the backwoods, which would require both cultural changes and perhaps political. If the location is cheap, prefab makes sense (just make it wooden and decent looking, not a tin box, and I will be happy to live in it). At that point you suddenly have a bunch of money left over to spend on tank-like toasters and their demand goes up.

      To be honest, I think it is mostly cultural, not political. I really wanted to hire a guy who lived in a quaint wooden cabin up way in the local mountain range and offered to commute physically twice a week to the city 2-3 hours of driving away, and telecommute three days. Boss said I want to see everybody here all the time for ease of communication…

      1. > I think a good simple answer is people cannot afford to spend so much on toasters because they spend more on housing, education in the case of the US, taxes, fuel, cars maybe (just a hunch), heating and other utilities, and a bunch of other things.

        Another contributor is that in order for 1x $600 20-year toaster to be a better deal than 10x $60 2-year toasters, you have to own the 20-year toaster for more than two decades.

        If you move across the country, will you take your toaster with you, or pack something you really care about and buy a new toaster when you arrive? What if your children contaminate it with their siblings’ favorite action figures just to watch them melt? What if you’re old enough that the toaster will outlive you, and you’ve disowned all your toaster-destroying heirs?

        Contrast with 10x $60 2-year toasters, which is more like renting a toasting service for a little under $3 per month. Assuming continuous inflation, the $60 you pay for the 10th 2-year toaster will be worth less than the $60 you paid for years 19 and 20 of the 20-year toaster. A child with a penchant for murdering plastic dolls won’t destroy a 20-year investment, and you can leave said child your last 2-year toaster to spite them. Also you’ll be able to avoid messy tasks like cleaning out the crumb tray.

      2. Houses are basically build in factories today, only they’re shipped in kit form and assembled on site. Doing modular lego-style houses would be a waste of materials, and doing houses that can be shipped intact would result in tiny houses. (Which some people are pushing hard, I’ll admit).

        Archaic building codes make things a little more complex than they have to be, but train loading gauge still continues to be a hard limit on what you can ship pre-assembled.

    2. Cheap popular mediocrity means that–other than surface features, the poor are buying the same (or higher) quality products as the rich.

      It used to be that poor people bought new shoes (see the “Vimes” comment) every 6 months or so, because the shoes were cheap and shoddy.

      These days shoes from payless (or one of the other discount shops) are…I don’t want to say the same “quality” as more expensive shoes, but they’re in the same range for *durability*. Oh, and unlike 200-400 dollar brands they have wide widths.

      They aren’t “re-soleable” like my 300-400 Allen Edmonds, they aren’t hip and cool, but they’ll keep your feet warm and dry all winter for 40 bucks.

      There are downsides to capitalism, especially if you take Marx’s own definition of it, but that’s NOT one of them and anyone who complains about it needs to get punched in the gob.

      1. A fragment of h2g2 comes to mind:
        “… until it passed what I believe is called the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything but shoe shops.”

      2. They aren’t re-soleble because you would be charged at least $80-100 for re-soling. Repair labor being relatively expensive today is one of the reasons behind this phenomenon. It is expensive because usually it is local. Out of the three choices: pay Western wages and other costs for repairing it, ship them to a cheap country for repair, or throw them away and import a new one from the cheap country, the third is the least costly and at least you have a new thing.

        And when Westerners do repair, like in case of cars, it is actually just faulty part replacement. Isn’t actually repair like welding holes shut. That is also because repair labor is more expensive than a new part from a cheap country.

        Three things can change this equilibrium. If global shipment becomes too costly. If third-world wages shoot up. If robots can do the repairing.

        1. >Three things can change this equilibrium. If global shipment becomes too costly. If third-world wages shoot up. If robots can do the repairing.

          I’ll take #2 as a relatively near-term possibility. The centroid of cheap-ass manufacturing has already moved in a big way twice – remember when it was Japan? When wages ratchet up in Malyasia and Indonesia I don’t think there’ll be anywhere to go for lower labor rates than sub-Saharan Africa, and given the level of chronic political instability and warlordism there I wouldn’t touch most of SSA with a twenty-foot pole if I needed amortization time of more than maybe five years. At any given time there is usually a bright spot or two like Botswana or Ghana, but good conditions tend not to survive the death of the current dynast.

          If #1 happens (outside chance) it won’t be because transport gets expensive but because trade friction is increased by neo-mercantilism. I think the U.S. is not currently setting the best example here, though I might have to change my mind if Trump’s proposal that both sides zero out U.S./E.U. tariffs actually gets accepted.

          Not expecting #3 any time soon. Repair is a much harder AI problem than manufacturing.

          1. I expect the current Chinese economic colonization of SSA to flower within my lifetime, and bear fruit within my son’s.

            I don’t see China changing enough such that them sending the PLA to “educate” an errant Mineral/Factory Republic (a la Banana Republic) will generate even the level of disquiet that happened during our corresponding economic colonization period.

          2. > I think the U.S. is not currently setting the best
            > example here, though I might have to change my mind
            > if Trump’s proposal that both sides zero out U.S./E.U.
            > tariffs actually gets accepted.

            Some of the less reported aspects of Trump’s blowhardism on tariffs is that there are a LOT of tariffs on US goods going into other countries. Something about a 270 percent tariff on milk/milk products going into Canada. Protectionism in the EU etc.

            Since it’s not US law and not the USG doing it “our” reporters don’t know about it, and it doesn’t make Democrats look good/Republicans look bad so it’s not really worth printing outside of obscure journals.

        2. My AEs were “rebuilt” at the cost of (last time I had it done) $75 dollars.

          I see now it’s gone up to 120:

          For cheaper shoes that used glued on soles, no, it’s not worth it.

          But that’s really the point, isn’t it? If you can get a comfortable long lasting and protective pair of shoes that don’t look awful for 25 bucks, who cares if they can be resoled?

      3. Payless is great. I consistently get very comfortable shoes that last for years and cost <$30. I am on my feet a lot at work (nurse) and Payless shoes beat all others.

  6. Oh, I should say in relation to the Sunbeam, my mother has had one for 60 years, used more or less daily, and it still works fine. It did try to kill her once when she poked around inside it with a fork, but she survived to tell the tale. I had one for 20 years after I found it in a dumpster, but it was deemed unfashionable by greater minds than mine and quietly retired.

  7. You actually had the answer in your second paragraph. Make the rounds of the thrift stores and find one of those old battleships with the Bakelite knobs and the cloth-covered wall cord (you may want to replace the latter in case the insulation inside has become brittle, but look for it as a sign of authenticity). You may need to make a few trips (they tend to go fast when they show up), but you’ll probably find something else cool while you’re there.

    As you noted, those things don’t wear out. Very rarely one of the elements might break but they’re often easy to splice (if not, any gauge of nichrome wire you need is readily available from Amazon).

    The same applies to clothes irons, waffle irons, hotplates, or anything else that’s basically just resistance wire plugged into an outlet. The old ones were indestructible. The new ones are shite.

    Those things will outlast you or me (barring the Singularity), plus you have a cool-looking retro appliance.

    1. >The same applies to clothes irons, waffle irons, hotplates, or anything else that’s basically just resistance wire plugged into an outlet. The old ones were indestructible. The new ones are shite.

      I think you’re generally right about this – I’ve noticed it about waffle irons myself. But I’m left wondering why.

      Most housewares have improved dramatically since I was a kid. Lots of small tech improvements have added up. What makes this category the exception?

      1. The older ones weren’t indestructible, they just had a much higher variance in quality.

        If your toaster has an N-year warranty, then any toaster that lasts less than N years costs you extra money in replacement costs, while any toaster that lasts more than N years costs you more in materials or manufacturing costs. Thus most engineering effort goes into reducing the variance rather than into increasing the lifetime.

        1. Also that – the “works perfectly” old toasters we see now are the also the result of survivor bias.

          The dead ones are long scrapped or sitting in a garage “waiting to be fixed”.

          We can’t even really guess what the rate of failure was.

      2. Material changes for commonality with other products that work better in other categories than for glorified resistors?

        There’s been a general tend towards building everything with plastic, and for some things that carries appreciable benefits, but not really for toasters and friends? Our current toaster is quite light compared to what I remember of previous toasters, but toasters aren’t that big, so heavier materials don’t make them so heavy as to seriously inconvenience the user. For contrast, I’ve never had a monitor of any type fail on me, but even if LCDs failed every six months on average, I would still say “good riddance” to CRTs and just eat the cost of replacing my monitor every six months, because lugging two tons of glass around every time you want to move your monitor gets old fast.

        1. FWIW, part of the plastic trend is that it improves safety.

          One of the failure modes for electrical anything is that the “hot” wire inside the appliance breaks off its connector and comes in contact with the case. This means that the appliance itself is effectively a live wire.

          There are two common ways to deal with this:

          1) Attach an electrical ground to the case such that this will cause a circuit breaker to trip. This requires a 3rd wire in the cord and a 3-prong plug. This costs more and doesn’t work for a fraction of consumers whose house was last wired in the ~1960s.

          2) Make the case out of a non-conductive material. Like plastic! In theory, something like glass could be used, but that has obvious problems as well.

          1. That!

            Plus, shipping weight matters.

            If a plastic case cuts out 1,000 pounds in a container full of toasters, well, it’s that much more profit that isn’t going into shipping costs – or a lower price that increases competitiveness.

            (Hell, the Old Classics often had bakelite parts – and bakelite is “plastic, but basically worse”.)

      3. Because the cycle is invent something new, sell it expensively, then other players compete the price down. Repeat.

        In the first stage of every circle, high material costs are affordable, help justifying the high price, and besides they are labors of love by inventor entrepreneurs who won’t put up with crap out of pride.

        In the last stages of the cycle you are a Gives No Fucks Ltd. manufacturer in a cheap country and the arrogant purchaser at the Western distributor/wholesaler is asking you if you can go down to $9 to from $9.5 on the toaster whose wholale price is $13 and the undiscounted retail price is $17. You say whatever, and cut a few more corners.

        That, and inflation. If you try to calculate what that $16.45 is in 1970 dollars you probably find a figure far lower than it used to cost back then.

        1. Your last paragraph is the real story, IMO. I just found a 1975 ad for “combo toaster and mini-oven” for $24.95. That’s $113.75 or so in 2017 dollars. The quickest equivalent product I could find on Amazon was $37.99.

          Those of us who have been around that long don’t perceive the price going down, but in fact the modern version is one-third the cost of the 1975 version. No surprise it is more cheaply made.

      4. > Lots of small tech improvements have added up. What makes
        > this category the exception?

        Waffle makers make waffles. Toasters toast. Converting electricity to heat in such a way as to heat/cook/brown bread is a very mature space, and there’s just not a lot of ways to do it *better*. So what is left is “cheaper”.

        Many other small appliances have gotten better because they have space to innovate in. Toasters? They toast.

      5. Well, also, those Ancient Toasters were durable because simple.

        But people want things like “timers that actually more or less work”, and “lifts itself when done”, and “heats a bagel correctly, and yes that’s different than toasting”.

        If you don’t need any of that, buy a retro unit from eBay, as suggested, by all means.

  8. “Luke, this toaster belonged to your father…an elegant weapon from a more civilized age.”


    Also, where has UPSide gotten up to?

    1. >Also, where has UPSide gotten up to?

      Hardware design is on hold while Eric Baskin builds his farm.

      The software is ready for when we have a prototype built.

      1. As noted, I’m in the market for a new UPS. So when you’re ready for an alpha-tester, please ping me and I’ll order the parts and get you real-world feedback. My soldering iron is standing by …

    1. Which is why you can’t tell a Ferrari 488 apart from a Chevrolet Spark!

      Except, er, modern cars have vastly different styling and even general outlines, especially if you include the “Supercar” space with Ferrari.

      I can tell a whole lot of modern cars apart without even reading the badging, though there are certainly gaps (“all Mazdas and especially all Nissans are overstyled and interchangeable within brand”).

      And when we add CUVs/SUVs/trucks into the mix, the idea that “they all look the same” is extra untenable.

  9. I have a bunch of VCRs. They may look different, but if you take them apart the the components (such as the record/playback heads) are interchangeable. I know they are interchangeable because I interchanged them to repair one.

    You’ll find the same is true for a lot of appliances.

    Even in the 80s, a Sears salesmen told me the only difference between a low end dishwasher and a high end one was the trim. The washing mechanics were identical.

  10. Bought my toaster at a flea market – it’s just like Mom’s toaster, and is probably 70 years old.

    Works good, give or take a power cord. Repairing anything more is impractical – Plenty more out there at estate sales.

    Hamilton – Beach?

  11. Almost all major metropolitan areas have at least one restaurant equipment reseller which will sell you a commercial quality toaster (yes they come in two slice units also) for under a $100. Nothing flimsy about these units, but they look like military grade hardware so don’t expect compliments from your guests when they visit your kitchen.

    1. >Almost all major metropolitan areas have at least one restaurant equipment reseller which will sell you a commercial quality toaster (yes they come in two slice units also) for under a $100.

      I checked out the websites for a couple of nearby ones. Price levels must be lower where you are; almost everything on them is way over $100 monster four-slot creatures for which frankly I don’t have the counter space (small kitchen is the one serious design flaw in the early-Sixties brick bungalow my wife and I inhabit).

      However I did get a lead on something called a Proctor-Silex 2250, a light-duty commercial-grade 2-slot toaster that looks like it was designed for catering and buffet service. I…may even have used one, I think this is the Generic Hotel Breakfast Buffet Toaster. Two different places have it for $90 and change. Ugly but obviously designed to take abuse and last.

    2. > but they look like military grade hardware so don’t expect compliments from your guests when they visit your kitchen.

      That ENTIRELY depends on the type of guests who visit your kitchen.

    1. >I think the real news here is that you didn’t install Linux on said toaster! :P

      Maybe after I’m done installing Linux on a UPS.

      Since you mention this, I will note that I watched a couple of toaster-repair videos on YouTube today and it looks very much like these things are still built without MCUs – the circuit boards look really old-school. I conjecture that this is because ICs don’t handle the brutal thermal cycles they’d experience in a toaster very well.

      1. They tried, but the safety people said “you have to keep the mechanical switch as a redundant safety mechanism” and the manufacturers said “oh” and dropped the MCU as a cost-cutting measure.

        There are a few toasters with digital displays on them though, because MCUs are effective cheap false quality signals.

    2. You don’t install Linux on a toaster. You install Linux on a million toasters kludged together into a giant relay machine. If you design it well, you might even reach one BogoIPS, and your grandkids will get to see GRUB hand control over to the kernel.

  12. It’s interesting that you mention that this part is the same on all toasters. This is actually what you would expect, even if there had been no consolidation of manufacturing.

    Imagine the N-dimensional graph with materials, manufacturing and assembly operations, and design as independent variables, and cost of this particular part as the dependent variable. Everyone who builds toasters is looking for the minimums of this graph. Once you minimize the number of materials to just aluminum, and the number of manufacturing steps to one (cut and press from sheet stock all in one step), then there may in fact only be one shape that gives the required stiffness. You would expect every rational actor to converge on that shape.

    1. >You would expect every rational actor to converge on that shape.

      In Krups’s case, they overshot. They cheaped out, reducing the millage of the sheet metal they cut the sliders from just a little too much. There was some other design flaw I never pinned down causing the jamming, as well.

      1. Maybe a manufacturing or materials defect?

        Can be hard to detect when you don’t have a reference model that is Known Good.

    1. I noticed several replies that seemed to be a variant “this completely different type of machine that also toasts bread is very good,” but a toaster oven is quite a bit different than a slice toaster. Toaster ovens don’t have the “pop-up when done” feature so should not have the particular problem of damaged moving part that prompted the post, but the starting price seems to be from 2x to 4x the starting price of a simple slice toaster. Not sure that is really comparing the same thing, might be more like recommending a table saw as a replacement for a hand held rotary saw.

      1. > but a toaster oven is quite a bit different than a slice toaster.

        I have one. I don’t use it for breakfast toast because I find it difficult to get consistent results with it.

        Very nice for improvised garlic bread, though.

        1. Oh yeah. A couple pieces of cheap sourdough, butter, garlic, and parmesan… sign me up. (I want to go out and buy a toaster-oven right now!)

          1. that sounds delicious, especially with the sourdough bread.

            I have a toaster oven gonna try that out…

  13. At a certain level you have to decide when it isn’t worth your time or effort to optimize the decision. You spent a fair bit of time repairing your toaster over the years. It would probably have been more efficient to just toss it and get a new one. At the price point of an average toaster, you can afford a few duds, but still stand a good chance of it lasting at least 10 years.

    1. >You spent a fair bit of time repairing your toaster over the years. It would probably have been more efficient to just toss it and get a new one.

      You might be right. But I inherited my father’s twitch from Depression-era poverty that way: use it, repair it, make do. Be thrifty. Real men fix things.

      My family background is an odd mix that way. My mother’s family was upper-middle-class Hollywood; there are pictures of her from the 1950s as a young woman wearing furs and lipstick and off-the-shoulder dresses in which she looks like a perfect starlet of the period, really quite lovely and classy. My fathers family had been the U.S. equivalent of landed gentry in 19th-century central Pennsylvania (they grew judges and military officers) until the whole region was smashed flat by the Great Depression; he grew up grindingly poor amidst memories that they had been prosperous and important.

      The result is that I grew up with an odd combination of upper-middle-class Vimes’s-boots instincts from my mother and almost compulsive fixit tendencies from my father. Took me years of struggle with myself, for example, to realize that it no longer made sense to squirrel away decommissioned computers on the theory that I might tinker some part of them into usefulness someday.

      1. I had a large closet full of old hardware that I had squirreled away for much the same reason.

        When I bit the bullet and tossed them into the back of my pickup to dispose of them, part of me felt very odd…but it was the sane thing to do.

        At least, that’s what I kept telling myself :)

        1. I did the same… two pickup loads of hardware so obsolete that even I, the king of frankenputers, couldn’t think of a use for it. But it was painful.

          And shortly thereafter I wished I had back all the antique hard drives… when I saw a Rodine RLL, like I’d just scrapped, listed for $900 on a drive-recovery-parts site.

          I did keep the 5mb reel-tape backup unit, but only because its case and power supply can be cannibalized. Tho maybe someday some desperate data recovery outfit will pay me a good price for it (since it still works, or at least appears to).

      2. My dad grew up on a farm with effectively infinite storage space, and minimal disposable cash. He is full of stories about Grandpa doing things like buying a dozen broken bikes at auction and fixing up 8 or so with parts from the others. He is still handy and inclined to do it himself, even when hiring out would be net cheaper.

        Like when he get me and my brothers to help move several huge shelving units. He could have had professional movers for about twice what he rented the truck for. If you value the participants time and injuries based on half our nominal hourly rate (calculated from salary/2200), the operation probably cost 3 or 4 times that.

        1. A friend owns property upstate, and told us about a farmer up there. A local restaurant had a fire. The structure was still sound, but there was smoke and water damage. The furniture that had been in the restaurant was is a pile outside. The farmer involved encountered the restaurant manager, who told him they would renovate and re-open, but meanwhile, he could hall the furniture away.

          The farmer did so, dumping it in a barn that happened to have a complete woodworking shop. During off hours, he stripped down and refinished the damaged furniture. He encountered the restaurant manager again, who was unhappy at the costs of getting all new furniture just like the damaged stuff to open up again.

          The farmer said “Come with me.”, and took him to the barn where the re-finished furniture was and said “Make me an offer!” The manager happily made an acceptable one that was adequate compensation for the farmer’s time and trouble, and the farmer took it back to the restaurant for installation. He commented later that if he’d been thinking, he probably could have gotten the restaurant manager to pay him to haul the damaged stuff away… :-p


  14. Capitalism is a harsh mistress, but there still might be some explanation for why there’s a better toaster made in England.

    Or there might be a comparable American toaster, just not at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

  15. My toaster is a Lodge cast-iron frying pan. It’s more work but the results are better.

  16. I did design work in the bread-toasting biz for a while, and have a couple of patents in the field. Toasting bread is not as easy as you might think. It’s a process that goes over the cliff pretty fast. The bread just sits there, in all of its pale-faced glory, not really doing much, until the surface dries out and starts to carmalize. Then, the more it browns, the faster it browns. The bread goes from an emissivity of about .1 to black-body status at an accelerating rate. Second-order effects, like how many slices you toasted before, have enough of an influence on how brown your bread is that a simple timer does not work all that well. There is a lot of invisible engineering put into that box to get it to make toast consistently.

    Someday, when you are fixing your old oven, take a look at the “modern marvel” that is the rotary knob bi-metal temperature controller. Looks pretty simple, right? Just a bi-metal strip, some ni-chrome wire wrapped around it, a jack-screw and some contacts. Probably could be made for a buck or two, in white-goods quantities. There is about 70 years of engineering that went into perfecting that nondescript part. The bi-metal/heater combo has to pretty exactly track what is going on in the oven, temperature-wise. It has to do so without significant overshoot. It has to have enough hysteresis to prevent short-cycling and enough “snap-action” of the contacts, which can handle surge loads in the 10’s of amps, so the contacts don’t sit there arcing and burn down your house. It is a surprisingly complex servo system, and one that should be appreciated for how well it works, considering how little it costs and the fact that the temperature controller never actually measures the oven temp.

    A major reason that most toasters seem to have the same parts in them is that they are, for the most part, all made by Whirlpool. Consolidation in the white-goods/kitchen appliance biz is downright monopolistic. Whirlpool owns 25 brands, including Amana, Jenn-Aire, KitchenAid, Maytag, and makes tons of house-brand stuff for Home-Depot, Sears, Ikea, etc.

    1. >I did design work in the bread-toasting biz for a while, and have a couple of patents in the field.

      Why…am I even surprised that someone shows up on A&D as a topic expert on toaster physics and engineering? I should be used to topic experts on arbitrarily recondite subjects materializing out of thin air here by now. I really should.

      I hadn’t thought about the nonlinearity of bread’s response to applied heat before; that makes total sense.

      >Consolidation in the white-goods/kitchen appliance biz is downright monopolistic.

      That makes sense of what I saw, all right. The economics is obvious…a really strong case for manufacturing at scale to capture cost efficiencies.

      1. I hadn’t thought about the nonlinearity of bread’s response to applied heat before; that makes total sense.

        Toast some bread using the broiler element of an oven. You will have to flip it several times to get an even toasting, but you will also see how the timing works.

        That makes sense of what I saw, all right. The economics is obvious…a really strong case for manufacturing at scale to capture cost efficiencies.

        Most bicycles are built by Giant: other companies select a design, or send them a design they want built and Giant does all the manufacturing themselves to the level of quality the company orders. Whether that be the sub-300 dollar garbage that infests non-bicycle stores to the 1500-2000 dollar high-but-still-mainstream. Go much above that and you are starting to deal with niches that justify in house work.

        What the granolas fail to understand is that who laid their hands upon the manufacturing process doesn’t really matter: it is who designed the shape of the frame.

        1. What the granolas fail to understand is that who laid their hands upon the manufacturing process doesn’t really matter: it is who designed the shape of the frame.

          For 95% of the people buying bicycles, no, it doesn’t.

          Components matter, and frame material matters (Cheap steel is heavy, good steel is good, aluminium is light weight but will eventually crack. Usually a week before your vacation when you’re in a place where you can’t just get another bike set up the way you need it.), but shape? You put a decent touring tire on the bike (moderate pressure, moderate width) and people can’t feel the difference between steel and aluminum.

    1. >I have a still functional toaster from the 1940s (though we rarely use it). Completely different design from modern toasters. You insert bread at one end and it is conveyed past the heating element and exits the other end as toast.

      That kind of belt toaster is still common, just not in homes. If a hotel breakfast buffet isn’t using something nigh-indistinguishable from the Proctor-Silex 2250, it’s using a belt toaster.

    1. Toast with delicious smokey flavor!

      But this brings a new problem: What kind of wood to burn in the fireplace? Please, not pine. Yes, pine lights easy and burns hot and fast, but a tasty smoke it does not make. Alder, apple, hickory, and mesquite would all be better choices. Hickory would be my choice if you were toasting the bread for a ham & cheese sandwich.

    2. My grandmother had an actual toaster that wasn’t much more than that — a heating element and two slotted things to hold sliced bread, which you had to turn yourself. It made marvelous toast.

  17. Back in college someone in the house had a great old toaster, the brand of which I’ve forgotten. It had a clockwork timer that started ticking very slowly, speeding up as the toast got closer to done:

    Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
    Tick, tick, tick, tick,

    Then very powerful springs shot the toast clear out of the top, onto the table. We called it the Orgasmic Toaster.

    1. Now *that* sounds like a feature to replicate in some future open-source toaster design. Well, maybe not the turbocharged ejector seat behaviour, but that amazingly intuitive-sounding progress indicator.

  18. I’ve just ordered a new suitcase, since the handle is coming off my old one. The old one is made of black vaguely leatheroid plastic with one flat compartment on one side, and two smaller compartments on the other, and a rigid handle by which it could be lifted. I could not find one on Amazon; I couldn’t even find a search term for it. When I searched for “suitcase,” I came up with things with wheels on the bottom, and a metal handle that pulls out of the top and lets it be wheeled down the pavement, and I actively don’t want that: I prefer to carry my luggage, and all that apparatus adds weight and subtracts volume. (I could specify “wheels,” but it seemed to be redundant, as virtually all the suitcases had wheels; and I could not specify “no wheels.”)

    I did find duffel bags and similar things with flexible handles and detachable shoulder straps, and I ended up going with that. The one I picked was mainly canvas and is probably somewhat sturdy, though I suspect it’s floppier than the old one. (I did find a black one, at least.) But I’m just bemused that a design I liked and found perfectly functional has so far vanished from the market that I can’t even find it online.

    I find that my complaints about market processes mainly come down to two things: (1) Not enough people want it, so you can’t get it. (2) Too many people want it, so it’s high-priced. And of course both of those can be laid at the doors of fellow consumers.

    1. In this case, I’d say #1.

      I can’t imagine dealing with lugging a hand-carried suitcase through an international flight, compared to the wonders of the modern wheeled suitcase.

      (I suspect someone from 1850 might bemoan the death of the round portmanteau or valise, regardless of how they’ve been outcompeted.

      Both of which can still be purchased from historical leatherworkers, mind.)

      1. There are a number of web sites devoted to the old-fashioned (and often very beautiful) steamer trunks, but I get hernia symptoms just from imagining lugging one of those around.

        I suspect they went out of fashion at the end of the era in which carrying a gentleman’s luggage was Somebody Else’s Problem.

        Edit: some examples:

      2. >I can’t imagine dealing with lugging a hand-carried suitcase through an international flight, compared to the wonders of the modern wheeled suitcase.

        I have never shed the college-student habit of living out of a large backpack when I travel. Part of this is a martial-artist twitch; I like having both hands free.

        1. Large backpack? Pfft! Most of the time when I travel I live out of a laptop bag.

          Mind you, I couldn’t do that last time… I needed to take a laptop.

          (There are many college-student habits I haven’t shed. Why would anyone shed them? They work.)

        2. How well that works depends on what clothing you take. When I travel, attire at my destination is likely to be suit and tie, and I’ll take more than one. That’s not backpack contents.

          I did realize we were part of a connected lifestyle a while back, when I counted heads and saw suitcase and travel case for clothes, laptop bags, backpacks, and a small case for power strips, charging cables and other electronic miscellany. When your luggage has luggage… :p


          1. >When I travel, attire at my destination is likely to be suit and tie, and I’ll take more than one. That’s not backpack contents.

            True, and this partly drives my sartorial strategy.

            The social role my Mr. Famous Guy clothes are intended to project is one I learned from Norman Spinrad called “Prince From Another Country” – I dress to look like a high-ranking member of a social hierarchy the business audiences sort of know exists but don’t understand. So I don’t dress exactly like a hacker, I dress like a hacker with old-money budget, confidence and taste. My SES is not in fact old money but it’s close enough that I can spoof their signals without a lot of effort.

            A minor driver of this strategy is that those clothes, being high-end casual built for long service life (Vimes’s boots again), tolerate backpacking well.

            1. All right, so what *do* you wear for Mr. Famous Guy? High end polo shirts and Dockers?

              1. >All right, so what *do* you wear for Mr. Famous Guy? High end polo shirts and Dockers?

                Would you believe black jeans? But really good ones. High end polos. L.L. Bean shirts before they went downmarket. Rockports. Safari shirts back when I could still get them.

                You’ve seen me wear some of this stuff because after a while it became more effort than it was worth not to do it all the time; besides, it was more a small upmarket shift from my pre-Mr.-Famous-Guy, bohemian-preppie birth-SES habits than a radical change in them. Good thing, too; the game I was running might have backfired on me if I had been trying to fake-signal an SES level a lot different from my actual one.

                To dress like a modern old-money person: simple clothes, timeless designs, really well made. It’s things you don’t do, too; have you noticed that I never ever wear clothes with visible designer brands or logos on them? That’s tacky social-climber behavior. The real rich-person look says “I could out-status-signal you in a heartbeat, if I cared to bother” The understatement is part of the power play.

                Today we see young tech billionaires groping at this, but you really have to have been around old money from childhood to do it right. And I wasn’t kidding about having summered on Martha’s Vineyard. For two weeks, and we were guests of people who owned property there. This nearly encapsulates my family’s relationship with old-money aristocracy; near it, friendly with it, but not of it.

                If you’re male, be pointedly above fashion and faddishness. A friend who knows fashion design once described my look as “conservative masculine”. Yep. Dress like you’ve traveled – and like you could be air-dropped anywhere from London to Tashkent and would land on your feet. It helps to really be like this. I’m not, quite, but I’m close enough to make the presentation work.

                1. I wrote:

                  >The real rich-person look says “I could out-status-signal you in a heartbeat, if I cared to bother” The understatement is part of the power play.

                  Works best when combined with Ivy League diction. If you don’t have that, you may have to perform (or fake) more overt status signals on channels other than your idiolect. I didn’t have to fake it, which left me room for maneuver.

                  Foreign readers: “Ivy League” is a group of eight elite universities in the Northeast U.S. with strong upper-class associations. “Ivy league diction” is very precise, educated enunciation in either Eastern-Seaboard standard American or a slightly New-England-tinged dialect. Coincidentally, the former is my birth dialect of English, and I went to college at an Ivy League school.

                  Final relevant note: I always believed that I had success persuading audiences full of suits in part because they couldn’t be quite sure whether they were seeing merely a random geeky genius (high in one hierarchy most of them don’t really understand) or a birth member of the old-money aristocracy (another hierarchy most of them don’t really understand). I did my level best to keep them confused about this.

                2. I don’t come anywhere close to having a relationship with “old-money-elite” but I do have relatives in the rag-trade – my grandfather used the same strategies to appear much higher on the social ladder than he actually was – and pulled it off very neatly. From that perspective, I’d rate your strategy as “near perfect.”

                  The wonderful thing is that it’s possible to do this on the cheap if there’s a decent thrift store nearby!

            2. @esr: >When I travel, attire at my destination is likely to be suit and tie, and I’ll take more than one. That’s not backpack contents.

              True, and this partly drives my sartorial strategy.

              I assumed it did, for the sort of reasons you enumerate.

              In some respects, so does mine.

              I’m a 60’s leftover. I came of age during the Vietnam War. I had long hair when long hair on males was a political statement, not a matter of fashion. But I discovered that if I tied the hair back in a pony tail and wore a three piece suit and tie, I could jam the recognition filters. People would see the suit, not the hair, and react differently.

              I kept the custom after I cut the hair. Most of my travel these days is to attend literary SF cons, and suit and tie are my standard dress. People asked “Why do you wear suits at a con?” and my answer was “The way I dress at the office is the way people dress at cons. A con is an opportunity to get in touch with my inner peacock and dress up.” People get that. (I got a hall costume award at one con for a black double breasted suit I was wearing. It tickled me no end.)

              And I’m usually helping to run the con, and what I normally do these days is be the chap who deals with the venue on behalf of the con. It helps to walk the walk, talk the talk, and wear the uniform. At one con where I was doing that, I was in the Con Suite, wearing the double breasted black suit, white shirt, and tie, with an earbud in my ear leading to a radio clipped to my belt. The chap running the area had long blond hair and a tie-died T-shirt, and was nervous about the graying older guy in the black suit with the earbud. I put a hand on his shoulder, and said “It’s okay. I left the Neuralyzer back in my room.” Then I explained the Hotel Liaison function, and why it helped to wear the uniform, and the light bulb blinked on over his head. “Oh, yeah, Man! I wear a jacket and tie and my friends don’t know it’s me!” “You grasp the concept…”

              (I have subsequently had people walk past me when I first arrived in casual dress, and hadn’t climbed into the uniform, and not recognize me because their picture of me includes the suit. I find that hilarious. At some point, I want to show up having dyed the hair, shaved off the mustache, and dressed in boots, leather pants and jacket, and something like a Sex Pistols t-shirt and see how long it takes before people who’ve known me for decades realize who am I before they hear me speak. :p)

              The suit helps other ways too. I tell people I’ve been talking to in email “Look for the tall thin greying chap with suit, tie, and con badge. Tall and thin lets out half the males at the con. Suit and tie lets out the rest. I’m what’s left. And when I need to get folks to do things, th4e suit and tie marks me as official, and I’m more likely to be listened to.

              I’ve been telling people for years that when we are out in public, we are always actively communicating, whether or not we are speaking. Mode of dress is communication, and signals who we believe we are and where we think we fit in the society we live in. Being consciously aware of that is extremely useful.


              1. >At some point, I want to show up having dyed the hair, shaved off the mustache, and dressed in boots, leather pants and jacket, and something like a Sex Pistols t-shirt and see how long it takes before people who’ve known me for decades realize who am I before they hear me speak.

                I don’t think I’d have that problem. You have a pretty distinctive face.

                >Mode of dress is communication, and signals who we believe we are and where we think we fit in the society we live in. Being consciously aware of that is extremely useful.

                It’s very true. I had to learn how to game that system; I couldn’t have had I not already understood this.

                Cathy is a costume historian. She makes museum-quality replicas of Iron Age European costume, from as early as the Migration Period to as late as the Carolingian Empire. Her costume blog is careful, scholarly, and backed up by a large research library of archaeological and literary primary sources. This has not escaped notice in what is a very tiny field; despite being an amateur, she corresponds on equal terms with PhD specialists. (I can remember when realizing this made her go squee.)

                I encourage and try to share this interest, partly because I enjoy the pleasure it gives her, partly I’m proud of what she has achieved, and partly because it is good relationship maintenance to cultivate an engagement in the things that fascinate one’s beloved. (She developed some interest in guns because I like them, reciprocating.) It is fair to say, however, that without her presence in my life costume history would not draw me much.

                Except in one aspect. I am curious about the semiotics of costume – what particular examples meant as a social code to the people who wore them and others who responded to them. Cathy, when thinking about (for example) togas, is mainly interested in how they were made and worn, what they derived from, and why they stopped being worn. I, on the other hand, barely care about construction details at all; I am more curious about what status and affiliative claims a toga implied at different points in its history.

    2. When I started traveling for a living, I asked a flight attendant what that suitcase you see all of them using was. She gave me a business card form Pretty Good Stuff. I bought one, customized so it didn’t look like the average flight crew suitcase. I still have and use it 15 years later.

        1. A good example why you should not give your company a generic name like “Pretty Good Stuff.”

    3. Compared to the weight of the case (hard-sided plastic tough enough to handle most of the abuse of baggage handlers), even a carry-on sized case’s handle and wheels weight is negligible, the caster-style wheels are external to the case, and the handle takes up an even more negligible volume than it weighs.

      I do travel fairly regularly for business, and live out of that carry-on size-limit hardcase for a week at a time (including my computer and lavish accessories for same). The four-corner casters means it stays next to me if I let go (in an airport), without requiring me to heft it whenever I move (or impede me with shoulder straps). I wouldn’t take it someplace where not having my luggage strapped to me would be unwise, but I wouldn’t take luggage strapped to me there either.

      (The wheels are on the “bottom”, not the “edge” because that way they don’t get a chance of being ripped off in the overhead bins where the case goes in lengthwise/flat).

  19. [I’m going to sound like a shill, but I’m going to risk it ;-) ]

    If you buy the Breville BOV450XL Mini Smart Oven, you’ll be happy. I know it’s not branded as a ‘toaster’, but it’s an excellent toaster (look at the images on Amazon carefully and you’ll see). It is tuned to toast all slices uniformly, and works more or less perfectly. It’s other functions are also almost non-pareil .It’s so good that we have bought and gifted a couple of these to our parents and in-laws and their lives have since been transformed.

    It’s terribly expensive – yes. But for a few dollars return-fee, you might as well give it a try since anything bought on Amazon can be returned risk free.

    One note of warning: When we got ours, it failed within the first month. We returned it to Amazon and got it replaced, and it has since been working without any problems for 2+ years. We shelled out almost $150 for our own piece, but when we bought it for my in-laws, we only paid $95. is your friend.

  20. With no moving parts, “RevereWare” pots and pans enjoy a survival rate even higher than old “Sunbeam” toasters. I have a set from my mother given her in the 1950’s. I’ve added more items over the years, finding the distinctive copper bottomed, steel sided, bakelite handled, riveted stuff easy to pick out from the dross at the Goodwill or St. Vincent’s. For $2, 30 minutes, a little elbow grease and a willingness to work with toxic chemicals, the grotty brown baked-on-grease can all be removed and pan revealed almost indistinguishable from the $50 to $100 offerings at the local outlet malls.

    Ditto Wagner cast iron … different mix of restoratives, longer process including baking in a new oil seasoning, but the same idea.

    I am frankly horrible with restoring knives, though. A danger to myself and others … Perhaps I haven’t stumbled upon the maker/brand that I understand as well as I do the products I call out above. Suggestions welcome …

    1. I have a set of the old RevereWare pots, myself.

      They’re not nearly as nice as my All-Clads, but they’re also a lot cheaper, and for a pot, it hardly matters for most things; boils fine!

      (And for a pan, they’re better than bottom-end new pans, for sure.

      At the same time, you get what you pay for, and I have exactly zero regrets on the performance of my All-Clad five-layer pans, in terms of even heating, which is the entire point of them.)

  21. I have no idea. I use a Toastmaster someone gave me that’s about 30 years old. My mom still uses one that is now around 70 years old. When mine was in storage and I tried to buy a replacement, I took back two (a cheap one and an expensive one; the cheap one didn’t work right and the expensive one had been manufactured with defects), then gave up. If the Toastmaster dies I’ll probably resort to the toaster-oven… and when the “new” toaster-oven (~20 years old) dies, it’ll be back to the “old” one (~40 years old).

    The real problem is that consumer-grade small appliances have become disposable. Cripes, I’m running into people who think a stove or fridge should last about 10 years…. and here I have a working electric stove made in 1950 and a working fridge made in 1948.

  22. Steam irons and dishwashers share a similar design flaw: the weakest point in the fluid circulation system is adjacent to an exposed part of the electrical system. For example, in dishwashers, the latter is part of the motor.
    As for hardware vs software? To computer scientists, software may seem easier to edit, but i doubt hardware engineers would entirely agree. Moreover, the design principles have much in common.

  23. The funny thing is that usually when I buy the cheapest I can find, it lasts way longer than I ever expected it would.

  24. > I’ve been telling people for years that when we are out in public, we are always actively communicating, whether or not we are speaking. Mode of dress is communication, and signals who we believe we are and where we think we fit in the society we live in. Being consciously aware of that is extremely useful.

    McLuhan shortened that to “the medium is the message”. And the medium just happens to be a fine wool worsted…

    1. @Dyspeptic Curmudgeon: McLuhan shortened that to “the medium is the message”. And the medium just happens to be a fine wool worsted…

      I’ve read McLuhan, and that wasn’t the sort of communication he meant. (I also recommend Harold Innis and his work “Empire and Communication”, where he talked about the use of stone tablets, clay tablets, papyrus, and finally paper, and how those mediums for written communication affected the ability to build and hold an empire. It’s up on Project Gutenberg Canada: Innis was a professor at the University of Toronto, as was McLuhan, and McLuhan explicitly stated he was following in Innis’s footsteps.)

      My cues here come from folks like the late Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist, who did work with linguist Norman Trager on comparative culture. In particular, see Hall’s books “The Silent Language”, and “The Hidden Dimension”.

      Once you get past the survival basics – “Am I alive? Am I healthy? Do I have roof over my head/clothes on my back/food on my table? Do I have some confidence that state will continue?” – the next concern is “What’s my status? How am I doing relative to others?”

      Clothing is a status marker, and how you dress displays what you believe your status to be. But status displays are culturally specific, and vary depending upon who you are displaying to. Eric’s description of his mode of dress being specific to the circles in which he was traveling and getting them to see home as someone they should listen to is apt. “He’s not part of my group, but he’s part of a group I’m aware of that has things to offer my group.” Proper dress reduces transaction costs and makes various forms of trade easier.


  25. A commercial Hobart or Polytron, but you can buy two new toasters every year for many years before you would get to what one of these go for.

  26. Like 15 Beers above, I make all my toast in a pan. Cooks alongside the hamburger patty. Tastes delicious. Haven’t owned a toaster, ever.

  27. I don’t know, man. We’ve been rocking that four-slot Krups for a while now. It works.

    (The previous Toastmaster woofed its plastic slider-handle cookies much to our dismay. But it was good while it lasted.)

    Honestly, nothing replaces the Sunbeam “slow-rise” toasters from the days of yore.

    [Wizard of Id sidebar] Nothing is more freeing than unplugging, and plugging, a toaster and not ever having to boot it up, log in, or set the clock.

  28. I can’t believe I haven’t seen a single comment that mentioned the perfect solution – cheap, simple, durable, and easy to fix: the flatbed toaster.

    They’re popular around some parts of Europe, and they’re simply two quartz heating tubes with a grill over the top. There’s a tray to easily remove crumbs as well. The only failure I could imagine would be a tube dying, which should be easy to replace – there are no moving parts, naturally.

    The first time I saw one I thought it was an infrared heater and used it as such (worked perfectly, except for a loud beeping noise.) By chance I discovered it would toast bread perfectly and then later on my friends mocked what should have been much more obvious in hindsight. If you get one without a beep (or a silenceable beep) then it can also of course double as an IR heater.

    The upside is huge: they’re cheap, much easier to clean, and make better/more even toast in my experience. Furthermore, you can toast bread of any dimensions – small, ultra thick, thin, or whatever – since it’s just a grill you rest the bread on. The downside is that you only get one toasted side at a time. I prefer only having one toasted side, so this isn’t an issue for me, but it might be a strange change from having both sides toasted. I suppose you could get two and put one on top if you wished (can’t see any reason that wouldn’t work.)

  29. I have owned a Cuisinart and a Kenmore toaster in the past 10 years – both cost about $60 US and both are junk. The Cuisinart suffered the jamming/unreliability problems you report in your article. The Kenmore, while it still works, has shaky, imprecise crazy lighted dial controls on the front that never seem to really indicate how “dark” I have selected for the toast. I would be much happier with a simple old-school dial that just says “light and dark” and actually works.

    I admit that $60 is not “high end pricing”. But it is still far too much to pay for something that is honestly built like a 10 dollar piece of feces.

    Unless you really have to have a brand new appliance, do what I’m doing now. Dig through flea markets and eBay, and look for an old Sunbeam or Toastmaster model from the 1950s or 1960s. They are heavy and durable. They do only one simple thing and they do it well. There are quite a lot of these out there in spotless condition. Even at 65+ years of age, they will still last long after I am dead and gone. I’d much rather spend $60 – $100 on something I can respect.

  30. I have a Proctor Silex T620B like the one here:

    I bought it in 1982 or 1983 at Winns. A now gone 5&10 that acted like they were upscale from TG&Y. They had the “good stuff” behind counters. You could look but couldn’t touch without a clerk’s help.

    So I’m looking. Reading the box from four feet away. Waiting for the help to do something other than pretend to be busy 30 feet away while watching me like I’m a shoplifter. I’m wearing jeans, t-shirt, sneakers, skinny white kid all of 22. In Austin, Texas. After about 10 minutes of this nonsense I broke the rules and went behind the counter to get the toaster. Through the little swinging door and three feet to the right. All of a sudden the entire staff was on my ass for doing so. They didn’t like me saying that they had all been watching me like I was a thief but too lazy to ask if I, the only customer in the store, needed help.
    It was on sale. Don’t know why, but down from $9 to $5 plus tax.

    It still works. Makes two slices of toast five or six days a week. I had to replace the plug a few years ago but other than it doesn’t like English muffins*, it’s been a very well spent $5.

    *It burns them or they come out just warmed. So, you have to watch for the first wisps of smoke. :)

  31. Hi Eric,

    Sorry for the necropost. This seems like a relevant thing, especially since it perfectly matches the description of “chrome and Bakelite battleships one just assumed would last forever, being passed down generations. ‘Luke, this toaster belonged to your father…an elegant weapon from a more civilized age.'” (Sunbeam Radiant Control patent 2,459,170 filed 1942 March 28.)

    His previous video on it has some funny moments for me anyway (e.g. Him: “If you don’t find this toaster to be downright beautiful…” Me: “You’ll see why if I turn on my webcam ;)”)

    “Now I’ll go research where to buy a really durable one when this throwaway craps out. Suggestions welcome.” …it’s two years in three weeks, how’s my timing?

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