Antique Toast Rack History (and How to Use One Today)

Updated January 4, 2022
Antique toast rack and breakfast

A staple in every well-furnished Victorian home, the antique toast rack is one of those historic gadgets that's striking to look at and just strange enough to intrigue even the most modern adventurer. From the 18th century to the present day, these toast racks have been serving as functional tools and conversation starters alike. Yet, with their many contemporary uses and average costs, these antiques are something to keep your eyes peeled for the next time you make your rounds at the local garage sales.

Toast Rack History

An antique toast rack was a product of the 18th century and was used to hold the toast upright at the table. These early editions usually consisted of a tray to catch crumbs, four small feet, and scroll work to hold the toast pieces separately. Typically, a toast rack was designed to hold four to six pieces of toast, although some held two and others as many as six or eight.

Toast Rack, Sheffield, circa 1880. Artist Christopher Dresser.

The earliest toast racks were simple servers made by soldering wires to a solid base and aligned with the growing refined design sentiments of the late Georgian period. A ring at the top was used as a handle when the rack was being carried or passed around the table. Over the years, a variety of additions were made to these simple serving dishes. Toast racks became more embellished, and some had butter dishes, areas for jam jars to be held, or even built in egg cups. Some antique toast racks were made with novelty figures on them, like this gondolier. Others were simpler and meant to be set on a tray.

Antique Toast Rack Styles to Catch Your Eye

While not everyone had a grandparent who had a formal tea caddy and specific table arrangements--including the mandatory silver toast rack--that they'd bust out on Sunday afternoons, most people are familiar with the tool's general look, thanks to these antique items' visual notoriety. There's a strong chance that you'd be able to identify one if you had to. Yet, there's much more to these unusual consumptive tools than meets the eye, as the different ways they were created and designed attest to.

Traditional Toast Racks

Traditionally, toast racks were composed of about six to eight vertically oriented spaces that neatly displayed your cooked pieces of toast on the dining room tables. The earliest examples of these toast racks come in conventional square shapes, while racks that were designed at the end of the 19th had less of a focus on strict geometry, with some examples favoring a cascading half-moon fan shape. Since these tools were meant to be used on a regular basis, most of them came equipped with built in handles for easy portability, and some even featured collapsible spaces for easy storage.

Articulated toast rack, by British artist Christopher Dresser

Toast Racks With Additional Space

Your ancestors were nothing if not crafty when it came to domestic gadgets; historic households weren't limited to traditional toast racks. In fact, there were all manner of toast racks with impressive additions and accommodations that people could buy. These antique toast racks came equipped with parts like built-in crumb catchers, spaces to place butter sticks, attached egg-holders, and so much more.

Toast rack, Paul Storr, London, 1809-1810

Novelty Toast Racks

You'd be surprised by the Victorian's sense of humor when it came to their ideas about interior design. Along with their dramatic and ornate proclivities and their whiplash-inducing oscillations between different design revivals, the Victorians had a fondness for novelty in their aesthetic. This resulted in common goods like toast racks being created with elements that resembled objects like guns and walking canes, much to their owner's enjoyment.

Vintage Toast Racks

Vintage toast racks are a bit more unconventional, particularly in their designs and materials. Often, you'll find that these toast racks were made out of materials like ceramic, porcelain, or wood. This does mean that these toast racks weren't as easily moved and transported as their older counterparts were, making them serve a more decorative purpose rather than a functional one.

Toasted slices of bread in a white china toast rack

Toast Rack Materials

Antique toast racks were most commonly made out of silver or silver plate, but they weren't exclusively made out of the shiny material. Among the many types of materials that these fixtures of the dining room were made out of are:

  • Silver
  • Silverplate
  • Stainless steel
  • Brass
  • Porcelain
  • Ceramic

How to Value an Antique Toast Rack

Given their refined purpose and design, these antique toast racks are highly appealing to people with an affinity for visual aesthetics. When it comes to these antiques, the older the piece is, the higher the price. Similarly, the materials play a significant factor in appraising these items since silver itself has a substantial value and will sell for higher prices than things like stainless steel or ceramic. Thus, age and material are two of the top of factors to be aware of when assessing an antique toast rack. Additional characteristics that can impact values include the manufacturer or maker, country of origin, and style.

Iron Toast Rack, circa 1937. Artist Florence Stevenson

Depending on where you source your goods from (online versus in-person, for instance), these antique toast racks can sell for anywhere between $10 to $500. This range does make it difficult to make a judgement call when you're shopping in-person, but it can mean that you're in luck if you're just looking for a toast rack less for collecting purposes and more for aesthetic reasons.

These are some recently sold antique toast racks, all of which run the gamut in style and price:

How to Use Antique Toast Racks in Your Home

For years, toast racks collected dust in the dark recesses of attics, cabinets, and thrift shops and were both outdated and unwanted. After all, toast could be easily stacked on a plate, and with declining formalities when it came to breakfast, it only makes sense that the toast rack has--up until recently--lost its purpose in the modern home. Yet, in the past decade, people have rediscovered the variety and beauty of the antique toast rack. Values have skyrocketed as collectors scramble to get the most unusual, the most elaborate, and the most beautiful toast racks out there. Where you could have bought almost any toast rack for $10 or less a decade ago, now, you can expect to pay $50-$100 for a small, plain toast rack, and many times that for an unusual design.

And, thanks to the crafty minds of the modern homemakers, these antique toast racks have been given new life and purpose in delightful ways, such as:

  • Use them as letter holders. Because of all the compartments, toast racks make great letter holders. You can separate letters by business, casual, and bills, as well as more categories if the toast rack is large enough.
  • Organize your important bills and documents. Take your bills out for a night on the town by organizing them in one of these antique toast racks with its elegant silvery color and geometric design. You can sort them by type, date they're due, or any other way that suits you.
  • Separate stationary and craft papers. Whether you love beautiful stationary or your scrapbook, toast racks organize those special papers beautifully. They're easy to get to and easy to see.
  • Display your dinner napkins. Whether you like the ease of paper napkins or enjoy the austerity of cloth ones, these perfectly symmetrical antique toast racks can make for divinely inspired napkin holders. Say goodbye to your grandparent's mid-century twirling caddies and hello to these unconventional apparatuses.
  • Organize your magazine subscriptions and books. Keep your currently-reading-list in tight order by using that antique toast rack you found at the thrift store to have your favorite texts at the ready.
  • Store hand towels and wash cloths in them. Bring your guests' stay up a notch by putting one of these antique toast racks in their ensuite bathroom and storing extra hand towels and wash cloths in them for easy access. They'll be so impressed with these subtle touches that you might have to start fielding their onslaught of future requests to stay the night.

Places to Find Antique Toast Racks

You can find antique toast racks in local antique stores, at garage sales, and consignment shops. However, the quickest (and easiest) place to browse around for an antique toast rack is online, at websites like:

  • eBay - eBay is one of the most comprehensive places to check out if you're looking for antique goods like toast racks. Unlike some websites, they have a lot of goods from around the world, meaning that you can procure regional toast racks to add to your collections with ease.
  • Etsy - Etsy is incredibly similar to eBay, if not a little easier to navigate thanks to their individual marketplace-based organization system (as opposed to eBay's item-based one). They too source their inventory from around the world and their prices are dictated by each seller.
  • 1st Dibs - One of the traditional online antiques retailers is 1st Dibs. If you're looking to add a high-quality, verifiable antique toast rack to your collection, then checking out 1st Dibs' inventory is a must. With 1st Dibs, you get the conventional auction-style pricing that you do with other retailers.
  • Ruby Lane - Along with 1st Dibs is Ruby Lane--one of the largest antiques auction retailers on the internet. They too have verified products that range in age, style, and price.

Make a Toast to These Elegant Domestic Tools

Toast racks may seem like a thing of the past, but these elegant tools from yesteryear can still hold a valuable place in your everyday life. From decorative to functional uses, these antique toast racks can keep on serving you and your family for generations to come.

Antique Toast Rack History (and How to Use One Today)