Few modern day breakfasters spend much thought on toast. Put the bread in the toaster and fetch it once it eagerly leaps into the air declaring it consumption ready. A century or two ago, the journey of the little toast that could was rather different. And for the upper classes, far more ornate. The fresh baked bread was sliced, placed in a fireplace toaster and carefully monitored as to not burn. Once the desired crunch was achieved, it was of utmost importance to maintain it, lest toast’s natural enemy, sogginess, take hold. An inevitability if simply piled on a plate. And so, the toast rack was conceived, providing a way to serve the crispest of toast in an elegant fashion. The design was simple: several rows were created by a metal scroll, separating each piece. The racks often holding 4-6 pieces at once. Convenient, accessible, structurally sound toast at your disposal. The only downside being that to retain crispness, heat was sacrificed with the opportunity for air to circulate between each piece.
Toast racks first appeared as early as the late 1700’s, but didn’t become common until Victorian times. Perhaps one of the biggest names in toast rack design, if not industrial design in general, Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) created quirky yet functional pieces to liven up the breakfast table. In this design currently on view in the American Wing, Dresser evokes the image of a Japanese bridge. He was a botanist fascinated by the arts of Japan, inspirations which can be seen throughout his work. After Japan opened its ports to Western trade in 1853, the influence of Japanese art and style swept through Western artists of the time, creating a phenomenon called Japonisme.
A contemporary of Dresser, Archibald Knox (1864-1933), was a designer of delicate metalware who would become one of the chief creative minds behind Liberty & Co., a London-based firm which played a large role in fostering the Art Nouveau movement. Like Dresser, Knox was deeply influenced by a particular culture. Unlike Dresser, Knox’s influence was not Eastern. Instead, he drew upon his own heritage, playfully incorporating Celtic knots, crosses and other interlacing designs that he saw scattered across the countryside while growing up on the Isle of Man.
The two toast racks differ dramatically. Knox’s dainty metal arms form small, elegant knots near each peak, giving the impression of a continuous, graceful line. Dresser’s, on the other hand, boasts the sturdiness one would expect of a bridge. The base curves, but the rest are 90 degree angles, a ball skewered at each intersection of the arms. Despite their stylistic differences, both men skillfully incorporated the aesthetics of distinctive cultures. Moreover, their work was not reserved only for the elite. Each also designed fashionable, effective and affordable pieces for the home. Inviting a new class of patrons to partake in the genius of their design.
Nowadays, toast racks are rarely seen on the breakfast table. Many are used as letter racks, as the design provides a convenient solution to postal organization. Perhaps they began disappearing from tables when breakfast became a meal consumed increasingly on the go. This on the go mentality could have caused a third option to arise between toast rack (cold, crisp toast) and plates (warm, soggy toast): eating directly from the toaster (warm, crisp toast). Convenient to be sure, but not nearly as elegant.