Meet Toast(er)master Wayne Konkel
by Mary Hooper
Not many people think about toasters.
A toaster is, well. . . a toaster. You stick a slice of bread in the slot, press the lever down and a minute or so later, you have toast, ready to spread with butter and jam.
If the toaster goes kaflooie, you throw it out and buy a new one.
Wayne Konkel, who lives in Pratt but whose family is rooted in Kiowa County, does think about toasters.
He thinks so much about toasters that he has more than 200 of them.
And he would never throw one out just because it went kaflooie.
He'd fix it.
And add it to his collection.
Konkel was one of ten children growing up in Haviland on a historic farmstead, nowadays the site of the annual, in August, South West Kansas Antique Engine and Thresher Show which showcases farm machinery of yore - those ingenious contraptions of belts, gears and wheels that clanked and clattered as they separated and baled wheat – popping, sputtering motors; ancient tractors, and lots of food.
Konkel also shows off a part of his collection, which includes waffle bakers and old clothing irons, in his boyhood farmhouse. Otherwise his 200-plus toasters, 120 irons and 95 waffle irons occupy a display space in the Pratt County Historical Museum.
Farm folk are noted for never throwing anything away. They might find a use for it some day.
That may be why Konkel's mother didn't throw out a couple of old, broken-down toasters, but instead put them in the basement where son Wayne came across them about 35 years ago.
"That's where this all started, in my mom's basement. Those old toasters were rusty and I wanted to see if I could get them to work again."
He took them apart, fixed what ailed them, and cleaned and polished them. When he plugged them in, he found – voila! – they worked. He even made some toast.
That got Konkel started. Every time he went to a garage sale, flea market or antiques shop, locally or anywhere in the country if traveling, he'd look for toasters, adding more and more to his collection. When a friend suggested he collect more than one thing, he branched out into waffle irons and clothing irons.
"What surprised me most is that 85 percent of these toasters worked. At home, we never threw out anything that worked," Konkel said.
Again, the farm thrift ethic.
Konkel's collection is a world of forgotten toasters. By everyone except Konkel and fellow enthusiasts, that is. And there are others. A woman in upstate New York outdoes even him. She has more than 500 toasters, he says.
He once called her to discuss their collections.
"She kept telling me she lived in upstate New York, that's upstate New York, she'd say," he recalls with a smile.
Before electricity, people had to use stovetop or teepee toasters if they wanted toast. These were cone-shaped affairs with racks on the sides that you'd place over a gas burner, toast one side of the bread, then the other. Even today, teepee toasters are used by campers.
Most of Konkel's toasters are electric. The really interesting toasters in Konkel's collection date from the 1920s, when teepee toasters went out of favor thanks to electrification, to the early 1940s, when the familiar automatic pop-up toasters began to be manufactured by such housewares giants as Sunbeam and General Electric.
Even if you're not particularly interested in toasters, you'd have to admit that those early electric toasters are gems of invention as makers strove to build a toaster that didn't burn fingers or even require manual toast-turning.
One of Konkel's favorites is a 1925 electric Estate toaster with four upright racks along the sides. You turn a lever and the racks fan out. Then you place a slice of bread into each rack, and close the racks to expose the bread to the electric grid. When the slices were toasted on one side, you flip the lever to turn the racks around to toast the other sides. With such an advanced toaster, a Flapper Era householder didn't have to touch the toast until it was done, or risk burning her fingers on the racks.
There aren't too many of those around, Konkel says.
"In a lot of those toasters, the racks didn't survive. Maybe that's why they were thrown out."
The primitive teepee toasters and the automatic pop-ups all have the same basic forms, but the toaster brands of the '20s and '30s, those Knapp Monarchs, Toastswells and Star Brites, had their own unique designs. Many are ornate and decorative.
There was the Merit Made model, from the '30s, that looks like a big chrome clamshell, until you press a plunger. This opens the sides where bread was placed on racks. Press the plunger again and the sides close.
Electric toasters evolved during the '20s and '30s, Konkel says. The early electric toasters required one to lay bread on racks and turn the bread over when one side was toasted. By the end of the '30s, toasters had all kinds of spring-loaded racks and levers and turning mechanisms. A couple even had bells, if not whistles, to let you know when to turn your toast over.
He has a 1939 Toastmaster with slots for up to four slices of bread. This was close to the automatic pop-up toaster that came a few years later. It has a flip lever with a mainspring that produces a click when one side is toasted. When you hear the click, you flip the lever and toast the other side.
Even more impressive is the 1938 Toast-o-lator. You put a slice in one end, and, as it toasts, a metal track with teeth-like projections moves the slice along until it comes out at the other end, fully toasted.
Konkel's collection includes several beautiful waffle irons with porcelain lids depicting flowers or the bird of paradise. These were impractical, though. After a few uses, the lids tended to crack. Konkel's porcelain irons are in perfect condition and likely were wedding gifts prized more for their decorative than waffle-baking qualities.
Other unusual items in Konkel's collection include:
A 1910 hot plate.
A 1907 tailor's iron, made by the American Electric Heater Co., weighing 19 pounds;
A 1929 Star Brite sandwich toaster;
An Angelus campfire marshmallow toaster with a pair of little forks, circa 1940;
Shapleigh waffle irons from 1900.
Konkel has amassed probably one of the best collections anywhere of clothing irons, including many stovetop flatirons, toy irons and irons that were powered by charcoal and (yikes!) gasoline. He remembers his mother spitting against the heated iron as she was ironing the family's clothes. If the spittle beaded, the iron was at the right heat to press clothes. If the iron sizzled when spat on, it was too hot and had to cool a bit. His mom had a gasoline iron too but didn't like to use it. Actually, who would?
Like everybody else, Konkel has a toaster at home, but it's just a generic everyday toaster, "nothing fancy," he says.
As for those toasters that he found in his mother's basement and set him off on his toaster-quest, they're in his collection, somewhere.
"I didn't keep track of them, so I don't know which ones they are," he said.