If you think weird modern kitchen gadgets are useless, take a look at the ones inventors were popping out between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. In the book Bizarre & Outlandish Gadgets & Doohickeys, which was published in November, author Maurice Collins presents all manner of strange gizmos from his extensive collection. Among them, there are contraptions designed for grooming, instruments for travelers and office workers, and medical devices that either did “nothing at all” or were “more dangerous than useful.”
There’s also plenty of stuff that was used in the kitchen and at the dining table, from practical inventions like butter makers and coffee brewers to silly tools like fork cleaners and spoon warmers. I caught up with Collins—who, over the course of his eclectic career was a printer of boxed games and the owner of an exhibition company—via Skype to talk about his collection and some of the most interesting things in it that people once used at breakfast.
Extra Crispy: When did you start collecting?
Maurice Collins: I suppose it was about 40 years ago. I have a severely learning disabled daughter and a son who’s a couple years younger. I realized I’d spent all my time with my daughter and not my son, so one day I asked him what he’d like to do and he said he wanted to dig in some old Victorian rubbish shops. I found a site down in Kent, in the south of England, and we went digging, my wife, son and my daughter. While we were there I dug up a bottle with a marble in it, and I wondered what it was all about. Then I found a bottle with a pointed bottom—the reason being, I found out later, was to stop gas from escaping from aerated water. Eventually, I started to investigate patents and inventions dating back to Victorian times, which set me on the road to collecting items at antique fairs. It evolved from there.
How many items do you have now?
I have about 2,000 and I keep them all at home. I know that sounds amazing, but I’ve got a big house. I lend them out to museums across Europe in aid of charity.
Do you use any of them?
I don’t. Well actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve actually used one of my apple peelers once or twice. That’s about it. Most of the items in the collection are more than 150 years old. The last thing I want to do is in any way damage them. Some of them still work.
You wrote, “Two of the most frequently met needs of the better off householder appear to have been keeping the servants out of the brandy and keeping boiled eggs warm.” Why’s that?
It was a problem getting food to the table hot when it was usually a long walk from a squire or landowner’s 'below stairs' to the dining room. Gadgetry kept the breakfast food at the right temperature. There were plates that had boiling water in the base to keep the food nice and warm. There were silver egg warmers, which held the soft boiled egg in a swaddled woolen coating. And there were small table items which could keep the cutlery—especially the spoons—nice and hot for use.
There were many restriction on the servants, but gadgets were used to ensure they didn't nick anything from their master. There were locks that fitted on the top of bottles and locks similarly on draws and larder cupboards. In the book, you’ll find many inventions to secure the belongings of the wealthy employers of the domestic classes.
Some of these kitchen gadgets are pretty far out. Which do you find most mystifying?
Many items that were marketed in the mid-Victorian period seem to have no logic, because doing it by hand was so much quicker. Take the fork cleaner. You needed to locate it in a particular place and then run the prongs through the machine to clean. A cloth would do it in half the time. I do love the chewing gum holder from 1898—it was American, of course—which the child hung around his/her neck when not chewing. I suppose they were told to remove the gum before eating their breakfast!
Other kitchen gadgets in the book are not so bizarre, and in fact, we use gadgets just like them today.
The apple peeler patent in the late 1800s is still being marketed in the exact same way today as then. There are items like the poached egg maker in shops today. Same goes for the fried egg remover. They haven't changed over many centuries.
You wrote that some of these gadgets were invented “in the days when the sumptuous Victorian breakfast was at its height, from deviled kidneys to lamb chops, from kipper to yes, boiled eggs.” Did breakfast drive innovation or did innovation drive breakfast?
I think that breakfast and the preparing of that meal drove inventors to accommodate the need of the kitchen and the table, in principle foods have not changed, nor the way they are prepared, so, as the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”