R.S. from Lompoc has a vintage Empire Trav'l-Toast Multi-Purpose Toaster, which plugs into a car's cigarette lighter and operates on 12 volts. Right on the yellow metal box (from which a sleeve to hold a slice of bread pops up), we read, "Make toast, toasted sandwiches, fruit tarts, frozen waffles and french toast" and "For vans, campers, cars, trucks, boats."
What an amazing, deadly, distracted-driver piece of 1970s technology. I am told that 12 volts handled poorly can cause some serious nerve damage!
Assuming people in 1970 fished inside the toaster for renegade toast, nerve damage might have been a possibility. And that would have been attempted while driving! If every object tells a story, this object tells us about the long lost art of the self-sufficient, impetuous family vacation on the American highway.
The unit was manufactured by The Metal Ware Corp., founded in 1920 in Two Rivers, Wis. The company, known for small kitchen appliances, is still in business today, with its specialty convection ovens marketed on QVC. The Metal Ware Co. is truly a remarkable industry, skating just one step ahead of market trends. The electronic travel gadget is one example of this corporation's habitual resourcefulness in the almost-kitsch American marketplace. Thus, this one object speaks of the lost art of the family vacation and the innocence of the American consumer around that yearly pilgrimage.
The story of this toaster is also the story of American capitalism at its most fortuitous. The Metal Ware Co. seems to have been in the right markets at the right times: In the 1920s, the company's profit jumped with the manufacture of a small, fully contained stove at 21 inches by 17 inches by 10 inches, perfect for single working people. In the 1920s, a national wave of industry in major American cities called for new single-occupancy domiciles — called the "apartment complex." Apartment dwellers needed small stoves, and Metal Ware provided.
In wartime (1941-45), the Metal Ware Co. used its serendipitous market savvy and was called upon to make small electric lanterns for GIs and small appliances for naval vessels.
After the war (1946-80), the American consumer market changed to home-based economies of scale. Metal Ware Co. marketed small kiddie electric irons and daughter-sized ironing boards, family electric popcorn units (think of the growing ubiquity of the family TV set), and ladies' portable home hair dryers. (I remember my mother's pink "Lady Aristette," a waist-strapped shell-shaped hair dryer, limited only by the length of the electric cord.)
In the 1970s, a new wave of home-related objects offered by Metal Ware capitalized on two new market trends: ground, canned coffee and family travel. When we think of travel today, we think of professional travel. But in the 1970s, travel often involved the family station wagon. Metal Ware Co. manufactured coffee "Kar'N Home Kits" — coffee makers adaptable enough for a car trip or a family hotel/motel stay.
R.S.'s little Trav'l-Toast unit is an example of the family vacation gear of the early 1970s, when fast food was not available on every dusty American highway. The Trav'l-Toast had cousins: the Empire Trav'l-Mate automatic coffee maker kit and the Empire Port-A-Fry, a 12-volt traveling frying pan. I can only imagine a gadget-head father driving the station wagon — Mom is making coffee, frying eggs and making toast beside him on the bench seat.
Well before Starbucks put coffee on every corner of American streets, Mom and Dad were grateful for a travel coffee kit. My dad operated one in the 1973 paneled Pontiac Catalina Safari with chrome luggage rack on the way to our family vacation at the Lake of the Ozarks.
Think of market confluence here: Toaster machines and coffee maker kits would not be possible without presliced bread and ground coffee, also a phenomenon of the American mid-century. One jump in technology engenders another marketing opportunity. In this amusing little Trav'l-Toast, we find a reminder of the self-sufficient American family vacation, Griswold-style. I wonder, however, how many baby brothers went up in smoke? Consider, also, the casualness of making coffee, frying eggs, and toasting bread in a car. In 1970, you couldn't be pulled over for texting (let alone no seat belts), and in that age of memorable family vacations (with at least four hungry kids lounging on the back floor of the station wagon), I doubt anyone would pull you over for making breakfast.
Its value is a mere $25, but what innocence and family dreams (and nightmares) this unit evokes!
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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