As is noted on page 1 of The Housemaid’s Complete Guide, written by A.M. Sargeant in 1851, “Dry toast may be made before it is wanted, and should be set up in the toast-rack the moment it is done.” On page 341 of Mrs. Beeton’s Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery, published in 1865, Mrs. Beeton wrote, “to make dry toast properly, a great deal of attention is required; much more, indeed, than people generally suppose,” and goes on to definitively claim that the toast-rack is paramount to the process. In essence, and in particular to the British, toasted bread kept dry, even if cooled in the process, is critical to a properly served meal.
Or, as anthropologist Kate Fox wrote in Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour —
“The English would rather have their toast cool and dry than warm and damp. . . American toast lacks reserve and dignity: it is too sweaty and indiscrete and emotional.”
Now that we have established how essential a toast-rack, what is the history?
I suppose it is safe to say that the concept of toasting bread is as old as bread itself. With this in mind, it is somewhat surprising that designing a device specifically to separate the toasted slices and prevent dreaded “bread soggery” wasn’t thought of until the mid-18th century. Prior to this, innovation revolved around devices for the making of properly toasted bread without burning it, rather than the presentation of it on a finely set table. In the 1760s, a new manufacturing technique emerged to create thin wires of copper fused to sterling silver which could be mass-produced. These delicate, light-weight plated wires were able to be twisted and molded into creative, beautiful designs. It is believed that toast-racks originated about this time, although the first reference to one using that name was in 1789.
According to Cynthia Harris of Sotheby’s in London, the toast-rack in question belonged to John William Anderson, a City of London alderman. It was stolen by two burglars, along with a significant amount of other domestic silver, and was documented as being worth two pounds, an exorbitant amount at this time. That must have been one fancy toast-rack! Whether the notoriety of the case (the trial held at Old Bailey was in the newspapers) aided in the subsequent rise in toast-rack popularity is unclear. But, from then on, numerous references to the toast-rack appear in cookbooks.
Normally silver or silver-plated, the toast-racks consist of vertical partitions, usually five to seven, which connect to a flat base with four to six feet on the bottom and a handle. Today, antique toast racks are often used as letter or mail holders! When, that is, they aren’t being used as, well, toast racks. The British still prefer dry toasted bread over the sweaty, emotional American slices!