For more than 25 years, Richard Larrison has collected a variety of small electric appliances, including the 1930s-era Helion Electric Co. pincher-style toaster he holds above. His collection comprises at least 3,500 appliances.
Whether it has two slots or four, is made of metal or plastic, or is designed to accommodate the occasional bagel, you’re sure to find an automatic pop-up electric toaster in most American homes today.
But over the years — since 1908 when General Electric introduced the D-12, the first electric toaster — the now-ubiquitous device has taken on many forms to apply that unmistakable golden brown exterior to sliced bread.
At the World’s Largest Small Electric Appliance Museum in southwest Missouri, you can see them all, thanks to Richard Larrison.
Opened to the public in October and located about two miles south of Interstate 44 on Highway 59 north of Diamond, the museum houses more than 700 toasters. Collectors like Richard classify different styles of toaster by how the machines handle the task at hand.
There are “pinchers” and “perchers,” “droppers” and “floppers,” “tippers” and “flippers,” not to mention the “swingers,” “walk-throughs,” “flatbeds” and of course, the ever-popular “pop-ups.”
Among his toasters, Richard has examples of all these styles, including several variations of the D-12, which despite its exposed heating coils, received approval from Underwriters Laboratories in 1909.
Toasters, however, are but a fraction of Richard’s overall collection, which is arguably the most diverse grouping of 20th century American electric appliances anywhere in the United States.
In total, the museum houses more than 3,500 small electric appliances, including percolator coffee pots, waffle irons, hot plates, blenders, mixers, razors, hair dryers, popcorn poppers and fans.
The General Electric D-12, first manufactured in 1908, was the first electric toaster available in the United States. Toast would "perch" on each side of the exposed elements, then be turned by hand to toast the other side.
“There are people who have more toasters, and there are probably people who have more coffee pots or waffle irons,” he says. “But no one has the whole shebang.”
Richard’s passion for small electric appliances began with a favor to his brother-in-law, Dennis, more than 25 years ago. Dennis collected antique electric fans in California, and he asked if Richard would buy fans for him in the Midwest. Richard soon found himself interested in the hobby, and he amassed his own collection of about 125 fans.
“All of a sudden, you couldn’t find them anymore or the prices went way up,” he recalls. Richard asked Dennis what other items he bought when he traveled to flea markets and antique stores. The answer: old electric toasters.
“I started looking and then I bought a book. Once you buy a book and you see that they made porcelain toasters and they made wire toasters, then I just went completely bonkers,” says the member of New-Mac Electric Cooperative, which has helped sponsor the museum.
As he became more engrossed in his hobby, Richard discovered manufacturers created entire lines of matching toasters, coffee pots, waffle irons and other appliances. Soon, he was collecting it all.
For years, Richard kept his collection in his basement at home. But as he outgrew the space, he brewed up the idea of a museum attached to his Western store. Though it’s taken several years to build the 1,200-square-foot facility, visitors can now view the collection any time the store is open.
Richard, who turns 68 this month, says his favorite pieces are the one-of-a-kinds.
“How many billion people are on Earth, and you’re the only person in the world that’s got this particular one? I think that’s pretty unique,” he says.
Many pieces in the collection are exceptionally rare and highly prized by collectors. In addition to the GE D-12s — which like many early appliances had a screw-in plug to fit a light bulb socket rather than a wall receptacle — Richard owns several porcelain toasters made in the 1920s by Pan Electric Manufacturing Co. of Cleveland, Ohio.
As with most antiques, condition is the key variable for value. “If you can find them brand new in the orginal box, that’s a real coup,” he says. Antique and vintage toasters in like-new condition can sell from $25 or $30 up to as much as $7,000.
Though he’s traveled extensively to add to his collection, today Richard scours the Internet mostly. “If it wasn’t for eBay, I wouldn’t have half of this stuff,” he admits.
Some of his pieces demonstrate American ingenuity and creativeness for using electricity. He owns an eight-legged popcorn popper of unknown origin (stop by to see why the extra four legs are necessary). His collection also includes a machine that declares: “Electrocuted hot dogs are delicious.” It cooks the franks between two bare electrodes.
One of Richard’s more unusual appliances is a commercial hot dog “electrocuter.”
In October, Richard and his wife, Janice, hosted the Toaster Collectors Association’s annual meeting. Bruce Coates, the association’s outgoing president and a collector from Lockhart, Texas, describes the museum as a “world-class collection of early appliances.”
“It’s like walking up to the edge of the Grand Canyon,” he says. “You get there and look over, you just don’t quite know what to expect. Every time you walk through, you see pieces you just haven’t seen before. He’s got an extraordinary collection.”
Richard’s passion for older appliances isn’t relegated to the museum. Toast at the Larrison home is made with a 1960s-era Sunbeam automatic-up, automatic-down toaster. Coffee is brewed with a Universal percolator from the same era, a choice Richard made a years ago after their modern drip-style coffeemaker broke.
“The plastic had cracked, and when you’d put water in it and plug it in, it’d shoot water all over everything,” he says. “So I went downstairs, picked out one of the newer percolators, cleaned it up and we’ve been using it ever since. We’ll never go back to that plastic garbage.”
Richard doesn’t charge admission, though he does accept donations to help offset utility costs. He’s currently adding another 600 square feet to the museum, as his collection continues growing.
With his proximity to the interstate and destinations such as Branson, Springfield and Joplin, Richard hopes to attract larger groups and tour buses. He says for those who call ahead, he’s happy to give a personalized tour, open the display cases and show visitors how these antique appliances work.
“We have a lot of good stuff, a lot of one-of-a-kinds,” Richard says. “If they don’t come back, they’ll never see it again anywhere.”
The World’s Largest Small Electric Appliance Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Enter through J.R.’s Western Store. Call 417-476-0707 to schedule a personalized tour with Richard.