The first toast rack I ever received was sterling silver. It had five rings with one smaller handle ring perched like the head of a snowman atop the central base ring, and four paw feet. It wasn’t particularly ornate—the rings were smooth and devoid of any decorative etchings—and its maker wasn’t apparently of particular note, but it was being placed into my hands because it was to be mine, and that was an exciting enough proposition to attribute to it fine worth. I was fifteen, and the toast rack looked like the kind of formal tabletop item for which a bride-to-be would register—a marked difference from the the wooden or plastic toys of what was at the time my not-so-distant childhood. As the youngest of the four Bainbridge children, not to mention the only female, anything that made me feel more adult was a very welcome thing indeed.
But what was it? Like Ariel the mermaid furrowing her ginger brow at a dinner fork before using its three prongs to detangle her hair, I wiggled the metal contraption, expecting it to somehow speak to me, revealing its purpose.
According to Cynthia Harris, who runs Sotheby’s silver department in London, the earliest print reference to a toast rack was in 1789. The rack in question belonged to John William Anderson, a City of London alderman, and along with a significant amount of other domestic silver, it was stolen by two burglars, John Cave and John Partington. “The report includes that the toast rack was valued at two pounds, which was probably quite high at the time,” says Harris.
Anderson was later knighted, but Cave and Partington were tried at the Old Bailey and condemned to death. (Cave was ultimately spared for whatever reason.) From then on, numerous references to the toast rack, a normally silver or silver-plated item that consists of vertical partitions, usually five or seven, connected to a flat base with four to six feet and a handle, appear in 18th and 19th century cookbooks.
“Dry toast may be made before it is wanted, and should be set up in the toast-rack the moment it is done,” reads page 11 of The Housemaid's Complete Guide, written by A.M. Sargeant in 1851. The toast rack’s purpose: to prevent bread soggery. Page 341 of Mrs. Beeton's Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery, published in 1865, points out that “to make dry toast properly, a great deal of attention is required; much more, indeed, than people generally suppose.” The toast rack, said Mrs Beeton, is paramount to the process.
“The English would rather have their toast cool and dry than warm and damp,” anthropologist Kate Fox writes in Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. In fact, you still see toast racks around the U.K., mostly in nice hotels and in restaurants that serve breakfast. Fox continues, “American toast lacks reserve and dignity: it is too sweaty and indiscrete and emotional.”
Buttered fresh out of the toaster so that the solids turn melty and seep into the toast’s epidermis—that’s how we like it. In recent years, we Americans have even taken to giving our toast avocado treatments, mashing thick slices of the fruit into one side of the bread. That requires a rather sturdy piece of toast, especially if it is to support additional toppings beyond the avocado, which it’s often required to do. Our tastes along with our casual and busy modern lifestyles have been shooing toast racks out the back door since the end of World War II.
Those that have stuck around are either the rare versions, destined to be auctioned off to collectors or museums by Sotheby’s and the like, or are part of a larger silver collection being sold in an estate sale. At Hartman Rare Art in New York City, I found two Georgian-era toast racks, two from the Victorian era, three from the mid-19th century, and one silver-plated toast rack that the shopkeepers didn’t care to date. It was priced at around $150; depending on the ounces of silver in the item, the notoriety of its maker, and its age, toast racks at Hartman can sell for up to around $1,800.
I know this because I make it my business to know it. The whiff of maturity I caught when I received my first toast rack was so heady that it still hasn’t faded, and I keep it fresh by making a new purchase here and there. I wouldn’t say I’m a collector, but I would say I own more toast racks than the average American woman in her early thirties.
That first one, which has now been with me for eighteen years, would probably sell for less than $150. It sits prominently on the first bit of counter surface any guest of mine sees upon entering my apartment, and I’ve given it a second life, just as my mother did hers, as a letter holder. Never in this century has it been used for toast—I’ve always lived alone, and I only make one piece at a time—but it’s an efficient and attractive tool for organizing mail. Anyway, I’m an adult; I can do with it as I please.
Julia Bainbridge is an editor, writer, and host and creator of The Lonely Hour, a podcast about loneliness that’s not a bummer.