It was after 3 p.m. and the breakfast dishes had long been put away, but Gloria Witt was happy to make toast. She almost had to.
She and her husband, Frank, had spent the last hour talking about their toaster, a 1949 Sunbeam T-20 model; a two-slicer so shiny you can see yourself in it.
That’s all it was, really — a reliable appliance — until their daughter, Margaret, took a photo of the couple on their 71st wedding anniversary last month, and had them hold the toaster between them. It had been a wedding gift.
But unlike so many that had been spent, lost or broken, this one had been with them every day of their marriage. Through three kids, their careers as schoolteachers, the lazy summers that followed and decades of retirement.
The Witts — Frank is 92, Gloria is 93 — still use the toaster. Every day. It’s part of their morning ritual, even when they don’t have to be anywhere but together.
And that’s always worked for them, too.
They met when Frank — who moved to Tacoma after the war to attend Pacific Lutheran College (now University) — went to the dentist. There was Gloria, the dentist’s niece, working behind the desk.
“I walked into the dental office and doggone, I made more appointments just to find out who she was,” Frank said. “She was a farmer’s daughter. And I just love her. I love her.”
“Same goes for me, too,” said Gloria, who turned her head and took him in.
And that was that.
“That toaster is a workhorse”
When Margaret Witt posted the photo of her parents and the toaster on Facebook, there were nearly 140 likes and 70 comments (“Are you kidding?” “They just don’t make ’em like they used to! Toasters and 71-year marriages!”)
The Witts didn’t get the fuss, at first. But then it started to make a certain kind of sense.
It’s not just about a toaster. It’s about marriage, and anything of value. It’s about taking care of something — or someone. It’s about keeping something that may be old and worn, but still good. It’s about not throwing it over for something newer, or fancier, that would do the same job — just maybe not as well.
“We try to take care of everything and keep using it,” Frank said. “We came from the Depression days. You used everything you could for as long as you could take care of it.”
A former biology teacher who served in World War II, he couldn’t help but get academic about it all, saying that the United States has become “a throwaway nation.”
As he says this, Amazon delivery trucks are roaming the streets of America, dropping off boxes of things people do — and maybe don’t — need, but can buy with a quick search and a couple of clicks.
The careers of people like Marie Kondo have been built from people’s retail gluttony, their houses so full they need strangers to come in and dig them out. Storage units can be had — and are filled — in every city in America. And for most of this year, the lines at Goodwill have been close to an hour long, as people spend the pandemic purging their homes of all that unused stuff.
But keep — and care — for things long enough, and they’re worth even more. Priceless memories, for sure. And sometimes even money.
There are Sunbeam T-20s now listed on eBay for up to $300, and it turns out to be a true-blue museum piece. It’s included in the Domestic Life Collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Hal Wallace, a curator in the museum’s Electricity Collections, was tickled to hear about the Witts’ toaster. “I’m not too surprised that it lasted this long,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that, as long as one takes care of it, and gets a little lucky, it could last forever.
Then this note of admiration: “Especially if it was a T-20 from 1949. They tended to build things like battleships back then.”
The practice of cost-cutting with cheaper parts and workmanship didn’t come along until the ’60s or ’70s, Wallace said, adding that a Bell telephone made before the company’s 1982 breakup “could survive an atomic attack.”
The toaster was invented in 1906, when Albert Marsh came up with a nickel and chromium wire — called nichrome — that could get red-hot and cool down, repeatedly, without melting or breaking.
And it came at a time “when we were beginning to electrify the country,” Wallace said. “At night, you can sell the light bulb, but what do you do in the day?”
Enter the appliance. First the iron, and then the toaster, the design of which became “pretty ornate,” Wallace said, with sleek designs and eye-catching chrome.
“You didn’t hide your toaster in the kitchen,” he said, “so friends and family could see that you were cutting-edge that way. And everybody pretty much likes toast.
“But that toaster,” he said, “is a workhorse.”
“If you treat something really well, then it will last”
Back at the Witt home, they puzzled over who gifted it to them.
“It was one of your friends,” Gloria said to Frank. “It’s in the guest book.”
They kept that, too, somewhere. So while their daughter Margaret went to find it, Frank reminisced.
“We had nothing except a refrigerator I bought before we got married,” he said. “All our relatives gave us everything we needed to set up housekeeping.”
Margaret found the “Bride’s Book,” still in the original box, where Gloria had carefully recorded the names and gifts from all those years ago. She found an entry for a “bun toaster.” That had to be it. From Mr. and Mrs. Don Ericson.
“Oh, from church!” Gloria said.
They had lived through the days when everything was rationed, she said, remembering how her family saved bacon grease for munitions. Indeed, the American Fat Salvage Committee was created to urge housewives to save all the excess cooking fat and donate it to the Army to produce explosives.
They remembered building sets of glasses from gas-station giveaways, and oatmeal that came with a ceramic dish inside. They collected Good Housekeeping seals from food boxes and turned them in for stemware.
When Gloria was a teacher, she saved the plastic containers from frozen dinners for her students to store their pens and pencils.
The Witts even planned their children with an eye to spending carefully: They waited five years to have their first child, Virginia, now 66, and then spaced out Christopher, 62, and Margaret, 56, so they could afford school tuitions.
Out in the garage, an old refrigerator hums away, topped with clean Styrofoam trays Gloria has saved to give food away.
None of it has been lost on their kids.
“If you treat something really well, then it will last,” Christopher said. “My parents never got rid of the things that were important in their lives. They buy quality so they never have to buy again.”
Margaret Witt is now a gifted thrifter who dreams of becoming a full-time, personal secondhand shopper. Thanks to her folks.
“My parents are the people you want to buy a car from,” she said. “They bought their first one in 1965 and it’s still running somewhere.”
Over at the kitchen counter, Gloria plugged in the Sunbeam, with its cloth-covered cord, pressed down the start button and moved over to the refrigerator to grab a jar of her homemade raspberry freezer jam.
In no time, the kitchen filled with that distinct warm smell, which suddenly went sharp and smoky, causing Gloria to grab the small wooden tongs that are attached to the toaster with a magnet. The toast popped up with splotches of black in the center, the rest a perfect crunch.
She spread the jam on the slices, cut them up and, without even looking, handed the plate to whoever was closest.
“[The toaster] has been a family joke for as long as I can remember,” said Christopher, helping himself to a piece and taking a happy bite.
“A new toaster came around one year,” he said, then paused a beat. “It went back.”